Is it realistic to envisage cars fuelled by Hydrogen in the future?

There are great technical challenges that lay ahead before we will see hydrogen fuelled cars driving on our roads.


On 24th October an article appeared in the Financial Times describing how Japan is betting that future cars will use hydrogen fuel cells (FCVs) instead of just electric vehicles (Ev’s). Extracts below from this article highlight the huge challenges that lay ahead to the successful development of this industry.

Toyota and Honda both have fuel-cell vehicles on the road, betting that despite the greater complexity and cost of the hydrogen technology, its superior energy density compared with batteries will ultimately give it a decisive advantage in range.


However efforts to boost sales of hydrogen cars have hit an unexpected obstacle: stringent Japanese regulations make it cripplingly expensive to build a hydrogen filling station.  In order to sell hydrogen fuel we need hydrogen garages.....lots of them!


Furthermore there is an issue because Japan's severe regulations push up the construction and running costs of a hydrogen station.  A fuelling station in Japan apparently costs two or three times the price of its equivalent in Europe. Due to the need for vast amount of concrete and the incorporation of special grades of steel in their construction a hydrogen fuel station in a Japanese city will cost significantly more than the cost of a conventional fuel station. In addition to the sky-high price of specialised material the construction of a hydrogen fuel station, staff who operate these stations need to be specially trained to deal with the high-pressure gases. Even more interesting are the special records that must also be kept of who actually handles and purchases the fuel.


The issue of regulation highlights the biggest challenges for hydrogen versus batteries. Batteries only needs wires but hydrogen requires infrastructure.


Even though hydrogen is highly flammable it might be less dangerous than gasoline because, unlike gasoline, the ultra light gas quickly disperses rather than pooling and burning.


The historical perception imprinted on the public mind by the Hindenburg airship disaster of 1937 acts as another major market barrier to the introduction to this technology.  In order to overcome this obstacle the Japanese have made the refuelling of a hydrogen car an oddly luxurious experience. When one arrives at a Japanese hydrogen station one is surrounded by vast expanse of concrete, equipment which is graded to the highest quality and the immediate attendance of a smartly clad attendant.


If Japan is the test bed for this technology then we would expect to see at least 40,000 fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2020. In order to achieve this goal they will need to accelerate the roll out of hydrogen fuelling stations from its current number of 80 to 160 by 2020 and then 900 by 2030. Each station will need to service about 900 vehicles a year to remain profitable.


The reader should be aware that there is an imperative to introduce this technology as fast as possible because the companies involved in hydrogen fuel technology need to take advantage of the Japanese Government subsidy before it expires by about 2020.


There are also major car manufacturing problems to be overcome. The Toyota Mirai retails currently at $60 thousand in the USA. Before the price of vehicles can come down, there needs to be both advances in fuel cell technology and a tooling up for large scale hydrogen vehicle manufacturing.


Currently the production of the fuel cell is heavily reliant upon expensive materials such as platinum. The development of the hydrogen car, because of the involvement of highly complex technology, shares a lot in common with the development of the electric hybrid.


The article concludes that the future of the hydrogen car holds one great advantage over its electric car competitors.  It can claim the driving range of 312 mile and there is even scope to increase this by increasing the pressure which hydrogen can be stored in the vehicle’s tanks.


However there is still a long way to go because it is still far easier to make EV’s than FCV’s.