Hydrogen cars hit the highway
Emissions-free cars move closer to the mass market with support from governments, car makers and a growing network of refuelling stations.
In the summer of 2014, Shelly Bennecke, a 38-year-old company executive from Laguna Beach, California, swapped her BMW 5 Series sedan for a Hyundai Tucson hydrogen car.
“I realised that I needed to start thinking about emissions and the environment,” says Bennecke, a keen triathlon competitor who wanted a sports utility vehicle big enough for her bikes and surfboards.
Bennecke is one of only a few thousand motorists driving hydrogen fuel-cell cars today. But after years of false starts, their number could rise dramatically, with support from governments, car manufacturers and a network of refuelling stations.
Car makers in particular, including Korea’s Hyundai and Japan’s Toyota, are starting to make inroads into the market.
Toyota , for example, launched its first commercial hydrogen car, called the Mirai, or “the future”, in Japan at the end of 2014 and already has a waiting list of between three and four years there, according to Craig Scott, national manager for advanced technologies at Toyota USA in Los Angeles. The company will launch the car in the USA and Europe in 2015 and expects to sell around 3,000 within the next three years in the USA alone, Scott adds.
Prices are moving within the reach of more motorists. In the USA, the cost of a hydrogen-fuelled car is now less than $60,000.
Proponents of hydrogen say that fuel-cell vehicles have the edge over battery electric cars in a world of low emissions because they perform in almost the same way as petrol and diesel cars. Except that only clean water comes out of the tailpipe.
“In terms of performance, acceleration and comfort, hydrogen cars are comparable with conventional cars,” says Dr Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell Chief Scientist for Mobility. He often drives a pre-production fuel-cell Mercedes-Benz B-Class that is on loan to Shell. He estimates that he can drive around 350 kilometres on a tank of hydrogen or around 250km if he’s driving at higher speeds on the motorway.
Most battery electric cars have a more restricted range and take hours to recharge. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, however, can drive similar distances to combustion engines and fill up in minutes. They generate their own electricity by mixing oxygen in the air with compressed hydrogen in the vehicle’s fuel tank.
But drivers of hydrogen vehicles need a network of filling stations to make the cars practical. Some governments are stepping in to support the technology.
In Germany, for example, Shell has partnered with gas manufacturers Air Liquide of France and Linde of Germany, as well as German car maker Daimler and oil and gas companies Total of France and OMV of Austria, to develop a network of 400 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2023. The German government and the European Union (EU) are also funding part of the initiative.
Today, Shell operates three hydrogen filling stations in Germany, with four more to follow in early 2016. One station, in Hamburg, uses electricity generated by wind power to produce hydrogen, which is stored on site. Electricity made from fossil fuels produces more emissions.
“Collaboration between companies and the financial support of governments will be essential to make hydrogen part of the future fuel mix,” says Oliver Bishop, General Manager for Hydrogen at Shell.
Governments are also introducing regulations to boost engine efficiency and reduce tailpipe emissions. The EU, for example, hopes to halve emissions from new cars between 2000 and 2020.
It could take many years, however, before hydrogen-powered cars are widely used.
Toyota’s Prius is a case in point. The company has sold more than 7 million of the petrol-electric hybrid cars since their launch in 1997. But progress was slow. It took Toyota 10 years to sell the first 1 million hybrids but from 2012 the company sold more than 1 million every year. “That’s the time it takes for a new technology like hydrogen to break through,” says Toyota’s Scott.
Hyundai, meanwhile, has leased around 70 hydrogen-powered Tucsons in California, according to the company. Customers like Bennecke pay $499 a month, which includes free fuel and maintenance, for three years. That’s roughly double the cost of the same model with a conventional engine. But Bennecke is still impressed. “It’s comfortable, quiet and peppy,” she says. “My next car will probably be fuelled by hydrogen too.”