We hear a lot about the development of electric cars - and rightly so. But there’s another alternative vehicle technology that’s less talked about. And it’s reliant on the most common chemical element in the universe. Hydrogen.
There are hydrogen cars on UK roads - and while you might be hard-pressed to spot one right now, manufacturers (notably Toyota, Honda and Hyundai) have already produced hydrogen models.
The UK Government is also financing the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles and infrastructure. In March 2017, it announced a £23 million fund to accelerate that development, with transport minister John Hayes saying at the time that “hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles can play a vital role alongside battery electric vehicles to help us cut harmful emissions.”
With that in mind, here’s a little more information about hydrogen vehicles – including how we’re getting involved here at Arval.
How do hydrogen cars work?
Hydrogen-powered engines go back a lot further than you might think. More than two centuries ago, French inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz developed a primitive engine that was powered by hydrogen and oxygen and ignited by an electric spark.
These days, it’s all about fuel cells – but the same elements are still very much at the heart of the chemical reaction that takes place in a hydrogen car.
Essentially, there are no moving parts, it’s just the chemical reaction that ‘fuels’ the action. It sees hydrogen enter the fuel cell from a tank and mix with oxygen to create H2O in a chemical reaction, which generates electricity that is used to power the motors that drive the wheels.
Hydrogen tanks are refuelled in a process that’s pretty much the same as with a petrol or diesel car. You just need to lock a pipe to the car and wait. The cost of filling the tank is also comparable at around £10 per kg, which is equivalent to petrol.
Hydrogen cars: the pros and cons
So what are some of the advantages of hydrogen vehicles?
- Faster refuelling: compared to recharging an electric car, a hydrogen vehicle can be fully fuelled in three to five minutes.
- No harmful emissions: the only thing to be emitted from a hydrogen fuel cell car is water.
- An impressive range: with a range of around 300 miles per tank, hydrogen cars are on a par with many conventional vehicles.
- Good efficiency levels: Fuel cell powertrains are much more efficient at getting energy out of hydrogen than traditional cars are at getting energy out of petrol or diesel.
And what about the disadvantages of hydrogen cars?
- Refuelling locations: there are currently only 17 refuelling stations in the UK and each station costs £1.3 million to build.
- Expense: Although the cost of fuelling a hydrogen car is similar to traditional fuels, developing the technology isn’t cheap and nor is storing or moving hydrogen itself.
- Perceived safety risk: hydrogen is flammable – but then again, so is petrol and that hasn’t stopped us from driving millions of petrol cars.
The development of hydrogen cars
Hydrogen vehicle development is at a relatively early stage in the UK. However, as mentioned above, some manufacturers have already taken the plunge and developed models based on the technology, while others are being planned.
The Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai iX35 can be found in limited numbers on UK roads, with the iX35 due to be replaced by a new model in 2018.
Mercedes-Benz is due to bring out a hydrogen version of its GLC range. This reflects a general embracing of hydrogen technology in Germany, where 23 new hydrogen stations are currently being built across the country.
The Hydrogen Hub initiative
Arval’s UK headquarters are based in Swindon, which is also where around 50 organisations (including us) are involved in an initiative that’s seen the town become a “hydrogen hub.” The Hydrogen Hub is an industry-led community of stakeholders from across the hydrogen and fuel cell supply chain, Government, local authorities, businesses and current and potential users.
It means there’s a lot of work happening in Swindon to develop hydrogen technology – and because it’s all happening in one place, it’ll see increased awareness, collaboration and exposure while also reducing costs.
Among the other organisations involved are Nationwide, the National Trust, Johnson Matthey and the local borough and county councils.
And with a wide-ranging representation from companies and sectors, there are four different workstreams taking place:
Combined Heat and Power (CHP): a project to install a hydrogen fuel cell stack that will power alocal public buildings
Forklift trucks: a trial of fuel cell powered forklift trucks with an aim to roll out 75 in total
Buses: development of a plan to deploy fuel cell buses in Swindon
Cars: Arval is the executive sponsor of a workstream that’s also being supported by Toyota and Hyundai
Under the “cars” workstream, we’ve secured a Toyota Mirai that’s available for our employees to use and as the only car leasing company that’s involved in the Hydrogen Hub, we’re getting a real feel for how hydrogen works.
We’re therefore well placed to see and research how the technology is developing and how it can potentially be used by businesses in the coming years, when hydrogen cars could be seen in increasing numbers on UK roads. This has been supported by our own fleet research in 2017’s CVO, where we found that 56% of business are already operating, or considering, alternative fuels as part of their fleet mix.
And that’s not all. The sky’s the limit for hydrogen-powered transport, with a four-seater hydrogen aeroplane making its maiden flight in Germany last year and being hailed as a major leap towards decarbonising air travel.
So watch out for hydrogen technology. It could be coming to a street – or airport – near you.