Hydrogen: The Alternative Fuel Manufacturers are Backing

Monday 4th May 2020

When most fleets think about green motoring, they will be thinking about pure or hybrid electric vehicles. But, as Novuna Vehicle Solutions’ recent Future of Fuel report reminds us, there are other alternatives to petrol and diesel that can help to reduce emissions – alternatives that might be more viable in certain cases.

One of these alternatives is hydrogen. As we’ve explained before on this blog, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCVs) are actually a type of electric vehicle, but they are sufficiently different from normal electrics to warrant their own post.

What makes Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles different?

The full answer depends on the model of the vehicle, but the simple version is this: most electric vehicles rely on batteries that are either charged in motion or by plugging them into the National Grid, whereas HFCVs are fitted with tanks that accommodate hydrogen in a gaseous form. This hydrogen gas is stripped of its electrons by special fuel cells, providing a steady stream of electricity to power the vehicle itself. The stripped-down hydrogen is combined with oxygen to produce the only emission from HFCVs – water vapour.

One tank of hydrogen can power a car for over 300 miles, which compares favourably to the more limited ranges of battery electric vehicles. Refilling a hydrogen tank also takes much less time than recharging a battery.

The limitations of HFCVs

300 miles with no CO2, no NOx, and only steam – it sounds almost perfect. However, there are several important caveats surrounding HFCVs, which ought to be pointed out.

The first is about the hydrogen itself. It doesn’t occur naturally, so it has to be refined from other sources – and the most common source is natural gas. This means that CO2 is emitted during the production of hydrogen gas.

What’s more, the gas, once it has been produced, is flammable and requires specialised storage conditions. These factors are among the reasons why there are so few hydrogen filling stations in the UK. Similarly, there aren’t many HFCVs for fleets to choose from. Only two cars are currently available in the UK: the Hyundai ix35 FCEV and the Toyota Mirai. Even with the promise of a third, the Honda Clarity, later this year, the number of hydrogen vehicles on our roads is so small as to be almost negligible.

Will those limitations be overcome?

Hydrogen vehicles may have a small market share at the moment, but car manufacturers appear determined to increase it. At last year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, several automotive companies, including the BMW Group, Honda and Toyota, helped to launch the Hydrogen Council, which will invest $10 billion to develop hydrogen technology and infrastructure over the next decade.

And it’s not just car manufacturers. Politicians in Germany are planning for 400 hydrogen filling stations by 2023. Japan is pushing for 160 by 2021. Even our own Government, which isn’t as committed to hydrogen as other alternative fuels, has established a £23 million fund to help encourage the uptake of HFCVs.

Besides, many of the Government’s general policies to support Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles also apply to HFCVs. For example, the Plug-In Car Grant will take up to £4,500 off the cost of a hydrogen vehicle. HFCVs will also face lower CCT rates, lower VED, and avoid any extra charges in London or other Clean Air Zones.

Throw in the fact that some vans and even HGVs can be converted to dual-fuel vehicles, running on both diesel and hydrogen, and it’s easy to see why so many manufacturers are interested. This is an alternative fuel with a great deal of potential – and that potential could yet be fulfilled.

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