We take a look at hydrogen fuel cell powered cars, and ask if they have the potential to be part of the electric automotive revolution.

It’s a common assumption now across the motor industry that the days are numbered for fossil fuels. It’s not something that is happening everywhere at once, mainland Europe has seen far more adoption than the UK, for example, but for many reasons, commercial and environmental, vehicles that run on alternative fuels are becoming a priority.

Battery powered vehicles have received a lot of coverage, and there has been a lot of activity around biofuels, but one alternative fuel that hasn’t received much coverage is Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles.

Here Comes the Science

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles, or FCEVs, are powered by electricity generated on board a vehicle by passing hydrogen gas through a fuel cell stack. FCEVs can be refuelled quickly and easily at a hydrogen refuelling station (HRS) a lot like combustion engine vehicles are. There is no plugging your car in and waiting for it to charge, but there is also no greenhouse gases or tailpipe emissions. The only by-product of these cars is water.

The cell fuel stack itself is divided into a large number of individual cells. Inside each cell the hydrogen molecules react with the oxygen in the air to produce water and electricity. Most FCEVs do this with something called proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. In these cells, hydrogen is supplied to a negative electrode where it is activated on a catalyst, resulting in the release of electrons. The electrons move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode, which generates electricity. Meanwhile, at the cathode, the protons, oxygen from the air and free electrons react together to create water.

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By GlobalData

The first full-production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle went on sale in the UK in 2015, and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Ltd (SMMT) suggests these vehicles are worth considering for town and city driving, school runs and other short-to-medium journeys. However, for these vehicles to truly take off there will need to be a great deal of development into the necessary refuelling infrastructure these vehicles need.

At the same time, these vehicles are competing with Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) for the same urban, short-to-medium journeys. BEVs are powered purely by batteries, using an electric motor to turn the wheels and, like FCEVs, produce zero emissions. Battery powered vehicles are becoming increasingly viable in the UK, even as they represent only one percent of new car registrations, and the top selling Nissan LEAF is manufactured in the UK. These vehicles can offer a driving range of between 80 and 250 miles, and if drivers charge them at home they are very cheap to run.

A Fleeting Opportunity

At the moment it appears that while battery powered vehicles are growing steadily, hydrogen still makes up a seemingly negligible portion of the market.

“Latest SMMT sales figures for February show that sales of electric vehicles continues at a pace.  Whilst pure EVs account for only 2.9% of total car and commercial vehicle sales (still a massive 217% up on this time last year) when combined with the various hybrid options total sales of vehicle with an electric element account for an impressive 18.6% of the market, up from 8.1% twelve months ago,” says Robin Webb, Head of Mobility at Shoosmiths, a company that has been making important headway in the field of electric vehicle financing. “It’s difficult to find any good data on the volume of hydrogen car sales which is indicative of the fact that volumes are very low. In the UK at least the EV and hybrid market is growing at a rate that outstrips the hydrogen market.”

However, private car ownership isn’t the only segment of the vehicle market, and in some sectors hydrogen powered vehicles are making important headway. While the first hydrogen FCEVs hit the British market in 2015, these vehicles have been in commercially operating here since 2011 when Transport for London, through its contractor Tower Transit, began operating ten zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell buses. Today those buses constitute the longest-running hydrogen bus fleet in the world, and between them they have travelled over a million emission-free miles. Since the buses launched in London, Aberdeen has followed suit in 2015, operating a fleet of ten vehicles, and it, Transport for London and Birmingham City Council have each received government funding from the Low Emission Bust Scheme that will see a total of 42 hydrogen fuel cell buses on the roads by 2021.

Indeed, by the end of 2018 there were over 120 fuel cell cars, scooters and vans in operation with fleet owners across both the public and private sectors, according to figures from the SMMT. The Metropolitan Police finished trials of seven Suzuki Burgman hydrogen cell scooters in 2018, and has already taken delivery of 21 Toyota Mirai. The end result is the world’s first hydrogen powered emergency response fleet, and the Metropolitan Police has announced plans to take on 60 more.

Meanwhile, in the commercial sector, Green Tomato Cars has a private hire fleet of 27 Toyota Mirai on the road, and both Toyota Mirai and Hyundai ix35 SUVs are being used by Aberdeen City Council’s car club. This is where the sellers of FCEVs are focusing their efforts right now, on selling or leasing to commercial operators. The reason for this is partly that production of these products is still limited.

A Problem of Infrastructure

However, another big reason for this is that the UK simply doesn’t have the necessary refuelling infrastructure to support a major growth in hydrogen fuel cell powered cars. The lack of refuelling stations has already been identified as a principal consumer concern when making purchase decisions.

The UK H2Mobility project has done research into understanding what distance motorists are willing to drive to reach a hydrogen refuelling station, while also considering how sales are likely to build as vehicle costs become more competitive. The ‘whole life costs’ of operating a hydrogen powered vehicle are going to be a key concern in how the market grows.

It’s something that those in the battery powered sector believe to be a key competitive advantage, as Webb explains, “Whilst there remain justified concerns around the infrastructure to support EVs there is no doubt that, even at current levels, the number of charging points dwarfs the number of hydrogen filling stations. As EVs have now entered the mainstream and consumer demand is increasing it’s inevitable that the number of charging points will increase at a pace as well as the technology that will enable ultra-fast charging.  EVs are also not saddled with concerns around safety that hydrogen vehicles carry with them.”

However, while battery powered vehicles might have the edge in terms of infrastructure and public perception, hydrogen powered vehicles have advantages of their own in terms of performance.

“Hydrogen has the advantage of delivering a greater range with vehicles capable of travelling in excess of 300 miles on one tank,” Webb says. “The gap with EVs is narrowing though and it’s not going to be long until EVs are able to achieve a similar, if not better, range across all models. I’m sure also that aftermarket range extenders will become common place before too long.”

Indeed, while battery powered and hydrogen powered vehicles may appear to be in direct competition with each other, the fact is that they are facing many of the same challenges, and for either sector the thrive the priority is to grow the market rather than fight for existing market share. All alternative fuel vehicles ultimately have to address the same issues, that the market is miniscule, so any uptake needs to be driven by infrastructure investment and incentives that build consumer confidence in these new technologies.

These issues are made considerably more pressing by the announcement last month that the government was to bring forward its ban on internal combustion engine powered vehicles by five years, from 2040 to 2035, and many feel the government isn’t doing enough to prepare the country, or the market, for the changeover.

Mike Hawes, SMMT’s Chief Executive says, “It’s extremely concerning that government has seemingly moved the goalposts for consumers and industry on such a critical issue. Manufacturers are fully invested in a zero emissions future, with some 60 plug-in models now on the market and 34 more coming in 2020. However, with current demand for this still expensive technology still just a fraction of sales, it’s clear that accelerating an already very challenging ambition will take more than industry investment. This is about market transformation, yet we still don’t have clarity on the future of the plug-in car grant – the most significant driver of EV uptake – which ends in just 60 days’ time, while the UK’s charging network is still woefully inadequate.”

While there is clearly much to be done, the government is has invested money in seeking out alternatives to fossil fuel powered cars, and hydrogen powered vehicles are making up a significant portion of their efforts. In February this year £28 million was awarded to five hydrogen production schemes as part of their £90 million funding pot for projects and research looking into ways to reduce carbon emissions from homes and industry. These initiatives includes what the government is calling Europe’s first “low-carbon hydrogen production plants”, including one on the banks of the Mersey and another near Aberdeen, where we’ve already seen hydrogen fuelled vehicles utilised for public transport.

Another scheme, dubbed “Hynet” will involve a production plan in the north-west of England near Chester, backed by firms including Cadent, Essar and SNC Lavalin, while the “Acorn” project also near Aberdeen, has set itself the goal of producing hydrogen from natural gas extracted from the North Sea.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, said of the schemes, “Cleaning up emissions from industry and housing is a big challenge but today’s £90 million investment will set us on the right path as we develop clean technologies like hydrogen. This is an important part of our world-leading efforts in eliminating our contribution to climate change by 2050 while also growing our economy, creating up to 2m green-collar jobs across the country by 2030.”

Webb agrees that, whatever competition alternative fuel vehicles face from each other, ultimately they share a common interest in driving infrastructure and public adoption.

“Infrastructure, range anxiety and cost are still the key barriers to alternative fuel vehicles becoming more widely adopted.  More and quicker public charging points are required but I’m convinced that it won’t be long before ultra-fast charging will be prevalent on the forecourts up and down the country enabling short sharp bursts of charge in a similar amount of time that it takes to fill the tank of an average sized SUV with petrol or diesel,” Webb says. “However, the relative cost of an alternative fuel vehicle will remain a real issue for consumers – the cost to purchase an EV or hydrogen vehicle is significantly more than the cost of a petrol or diesel equivalent.  The UK market would benefit from taking a leaf out of some our European counterparts and provide greater government led subsidies for people looking to switch to green alternatives. Norway, for instance, has introduced clear and consistent policies, including tax breaks for EVs, comprehensive charging infrastructure and incentives for various EV drivers (including the right to drive in bus lanes and reduced parking costs). As a result electronic vehicles account for around 50% of new car sales!”

While there’s a great deal of work to do, the fact remains that public concerns and legislative changes, not to mention pressing environmental issues are combining to provide a powerful motivator to the alternative fuels sector.

Webb tells us, “A combination of bringing forward of the ban on diesel and petrol vehicles to 2035, the increase in the number of clean air zones across the country, the rapid rate to technological advances, and the increased public awareness and concern as to society’s environmental footprint and the change in consumer purchasing habits that this brings with it all points towards a meteoric increase in the market share of EVs and other forms of alternative fuels in the short to medium term.”