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High on hydrogen

The car industry, like many other industries, is going through rapid and exciting technological change. With self-driving cars, fuel cells, electric charging stations or “mobility as a service”, the nature of driving is going to change. One of the latest innovations is using hydrogen for fuel.

Hydrogen v electricity

The idea of hydrogen vehicles is similar to electric vehicles but different.

You charge a battery electric vehicle by plugging it into an electricity source. A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle requires high pressure hydrogen to create electricity, which powers an electric motor. Hydrogen vehicles, like electric vehicles, are very quiet because they do not have an engine.

Fuel cell electric vehicles

Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz have already developed electric vehicles (FCEVs) with fuel cells powered by hydrogen.

Toyota, for example, developed the Mirai, a word that means “future” in Japanese. It has dual 60 litre hydrogen tanks behind and under the rear seat and refuelling takes only 3-5 minutes. Its only waste product is water. Unfortunately, Toyota had to buy a truck carrying a hydrogen tank so it could showcase the Mirai around Australia.

Hyundai has just sold a fleet of 20 FCEVs, SUV-style, to the ACT government – the first hydrogen fleet in the country. A new electrolyser in the ACT will power this fleet to test the infrastructure, but will ultimately be able to fuel 1,200 hydrogen cars. In Sydney there is a refuelling station at Hyundai’s Macquarie Park headquarters.

A GM and Honda joint venture in America is currently developing a hydrogen fuel cell system, with mass production due to start around 2020.

Future of hydrogen

The Chairman of Mercedes-Daimler claims hydrogen fuel cell technology is losing relevance as batteries become more effective. He believes hydrogen may ultimately be more suitable for trucks because of their need for long range driving. Even so, Mercedes will launch a few fuel cell vehicles in 2018.

BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota have formed a committee with some other multinationals, dubbed the Hydrogen Council. Their intention is to push hydrogen as a fuel source, not just for vehicles, but for infrastructure and industry. So far, they spend nearly $2 billion each year.

Currently, more effort is going into making and developing electric vehicles and hybrids. But an electric vehicle takes about an hour to charge and a hydrogen car takes 3-5 minutes to be refilled – for the same driving range.

Unfortunately, there needs to be infrastructure to push the cost down and without cars, there is no need for infrastructure. Whoever creates the infrastructure will most influence the type of vehicle. It will be interesting to see which one wins, if any.

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