Will Hydrogen Be the Way Forward?
Electric and hybrid cars having been making some headway in the market, but they are not the only alternative to petrol and diesel cars.
The hydrogen fuel cell car has been around for some time, and some manufacturers are beginning to focus more on the technology. Hyundai is one such company and, according to their engineering chief, Sae Hoon Kim, the ‘hydrogen economy’ is growing and coming soon to a forecourt near you.
Kim uses the example of the Japanese government’s basic energy plan, which highlights hydrogen as a key source of energy for the country in the coming years. Kim also says that the new Hyundai ix35 hydrogen fuel cell SUV will overcome the previous barriers to the technology because it will be in ready supply and will benefit from a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure being in place. Kim says that the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure was due to a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Nobody was willing to build hydrogen refuelling stations unless there was a sufficient population of hydrogen fuel cell cars to make them financially viable. On the other hand, nobody was going to buy a hydrogen fuel cell car if there was nowhere to refuel it. Now Hyundai are committed to making the cars, and if you order one you will get it within three months.
Hyundai is betting on the Japanese enthusiasm for hydrogen as being an indicator of the future direction for other countries. Japan is looking seriously at the technology for domestic electricity supply as well as a fuel source for cars. Part of the reason for this new focus is a result of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011. This caused the government in Japan to look for other answers to their energy needs. The result is that Japan will have 100 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2015 and 1,000 in place by 2025. The Tokyo Olympics in 2020 will also encourage adoption of the new fuel, as the Japanese have said that all of the official vehicles for the games will be powered by hydrogen. Hyundai is interpreting this move as a signal that Japan is ready to adopt hydrogen as its secondary energy source.
The hydrogen fuel cell has been trumpeted as the next big thing in fuel for more than 20 years. In the 1990s, General Motors invested a lot into researching the technology but found it to be too expensive. Now, however, the technology is maturing and prices are coming down. The accident at Fukushima has also made other countries, such as Germany, rethink their energy futures and invest more in hydrogen research.
The new challenge for developers is to bring down the cost of energy produced by a hydrogen fuel cell to the point where it is competitive with other sources. In the US, for example, the Department of Energy has a target of $50 per kilowatt. This has proved difficult to accomplish, with one problem area being the storage tanks. These are specialist units and have been made out of spun carbon, which is a particularly expensive material. Other expensive features are the proton membrane and the amount of platinum used in the construction of the fuel cell.
Kim acknowledges that the components and manufacturing process involved in the hydrogen fuel cell are still expensive. It is also a complex process, and Hyundai says that it needs around 300 different suppliers to manufacture the ix35. Nevertheless, if successful, hydrogen fuel cell cars could transform motoring. Electric cars suffer from low operating ranges, typically around 100 miles between charges. Charging can also take many hours and require hooking up overnight to a suitable supply. For many city dwellers in apartments, this is simply impossible. Hydrogen fuel cell cars, on the other hand, have ranges much like conventional cars of up to several hundred miles between refuelling. That refuelling can take place in only a few minutes — much like the time taken to fill up a normal car with petrol or diesel. Overcoming these problems could mean that the future will prove to be a hydrogen-powered one.