Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem like the low emissions motoring dream, emitting only water from their exhaust pipes. Even TV motoring star James May is a big advocate.
They have been in the news recently, after the first hydrogen pump on a UK public filling station forecourt was unveiled.
It seems like an ideal time to assess where exactly hydrogen is in relation to mainstream motoring – so we asked our transport expert Ian Featherstone (pictured) for his views on this technology's potential to mix up the market.
He said: “Most people think it's going to be a mixed-fuel economy in the not too distant future.
"Hydrogen has zero tail pipe emissions like battery electric vehicles (BEVs), but has the advantage of having two or three-minute refuelling and a 300+-mile range. The refuelling infrastructure is more conventional, too.
“But the fuel itself currently offers no price advantage over fossil fuels. Though of course, it may well come down as volumes sold increase.”
There's certainly plenty of room for more low-carbon options at the pumps. Ian explained:
“Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) which include pure electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, still account for under 1.5 per cent of the market – so there's 98.5 per cent still to target. The government has been talking about a mix of low emissions options for quite a while, with a 2040 target for all new vehicles sold to be ultra-low emissions.”
Often in the case of emerging technologies, one in particular rises to eventual dominance – but Ian doesn't think this will be the case on the roads.
“There are quite strong feelings in the industry for and against both hydrogen and electric. I'm not convinced one technology is going to come to dominate over the next few years. Different fuel options will be better for different uses, and it's not just about those two options." Ian Featherstone, Fleet Advice Manager, Energy Saving Trust
“There are quite strong feelings in the industry for and against both hydrogen and electric. I'm not convinced one technology is going to come to dominate over the next few years. Different fuel options will be better for different uses, and it's not just about those two options.
“Heavy trucks travel large distances. Batteries would have to be massive, as would hydrogen storage tanks. So the options in the near future are likely to be gas, such as bio methane, or cleaner bio-fuels from plant waste. For coaches travelling long distances, it would be the same.
“For buses and small delivery trucks in urban areas, battery electric and hydrogen are realistic. Hydrogen has been proved useful for running buses in cities, as it can be stored in tanks on the roof. For smaller cars and vans, again, battery electric and hydrogen are suitable options.”
There is room for both hydrogen fuel cell and BEV technology to improve – and this requires a look at the bigger picture of energy generation in the UK.
He said: “Is there enough surplus energy capacity to make hydrogen, and how effective might battery storage become? Will storing excess electricity in batteries be more efficient than the hydrolysis of water?
“But if BEVs come to have the greater market share it will be down to battery development. Progress has come in leaps and bounds in recent years, with charge rates of 350kW arriving soon, promising rapid charging in a matter of a few minutes rather than half hours and the driving range of mainstream BEVs is already up to around 200 miles and anticipated to be pushing towards 300 soon.”
There are other matters, both political and financial, that will determine just how varied the fuel mix becomes on filling station forecourts. He explained:
“Moves to tackle air quality, such as access charges for cities, are likely to make an impact. Then there's the falling price of vehicles, which we've seen happening with BEVs. Ultimately it's all about economics; making the alternatives more realistic.”
The links between low-carbon motoring infrastructure and vehicle take-up are considerable; and can resemble a 'chicken and egg' scenario. Ian points to Swindon's Hydrogen Hub as an interesting current example of efforts to create a market for hydrogen vehicles.
He said: “It's a group of businesses in Swindon all committing to take up hydrogen. It includes buses, trucks and cars and aims to capitalise on the benefits of scale – getting operating costs down.
“There's also a small hydrogen network being installed by the Office of Low Emissions Vehicles (OLEV). 12 are currently in place, with plans for up to 100 more.”
So the latest moves to place hydrogen – and the general idea of alternatives to fossil fuels – in more prominent public positions is certainly one to be welcomed. The coming years will be interesting, as technologies shuffle for position in a growing market for cleaner options. Ian added:
“BEVs are currently in the lead. Hydrogen vehicles are not generally available in the showroom right now, but they are definitely one to watch, as they become more widely available.”