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Hydrogen another fuel for thought

Last week’s blog discussed electric vehicles and this week we talk about hydrogen. Fuel cell vehicles powered with hydrogen are still in the early stages, but hydrogen has many advantages over purely electric. Fuel cell vehicles could be ideal for buses, trucks or delivery vans, rather than private vehicles.

The advantages of hydrogen

A fuel celled vehicle (FCEV) uses fuel, such as hydrogen, and converts it to electricity. A purely electric vehicle (EV) is charged directly with electricity.

While it takes an hour to charge an EV, fuelling a hydrogen car is like buying petrol and takes only 3-5 minutes. FCEVs have a longer range, which makes them suitable for commercial purposes such as trucks, buses and delivery vans. They are also quiet, carry a battery, and their only emission is water.

So far, Toyota and Hyundai are the main contenders, but Mercedes-Benz and China’s Grove are also pursuing FCEVs.

  • Toyota Mirai (means “future”) is a sedan priced at $77,000, range 500 kms
  • Hyundai Nexo is a crossover SUV priced at $100,000, range 800 kms
  • Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL is part-electric, part-hydrogen, lease only.

While Toyota sold only 2,700 Mirais in 2017 compared with 1.52m hybrids and EVs, it is committed to the technology. Hyundai introduced the Tuscon FCEV in 2013 and its offshoot the Nexo only last year. The GLC F-CELL is currently available only in Germany on lease.

Will governments lead the way?

In Japan and South Korea, private and public fuel-cell fleets already use hydrogen. Australia is well behind in both electric and fuel cell vehicles.

Toyota just received a 3.1m grant to turn its former Melbourne factory into a refuelling station and brought in 13 hydrogen FCEVs for government officials to test. Hyundai is supplying 20 Nexos this year to the ACT government as part of a wind farm project. The ACT will have a new electrolyser to power its fleet.

Meanwhile, the South Australian government is planning a fleet of hydrogen buses. Moreland Council in Victoria plans to install a hydrogen fuel station this year and NSW has one refuelling station at Hyundai’s headquarters in Macquarie Park.

Drawbacks of hydrogen

Without proper infrastructure to support hydrogen FCEVs, we are not likely to see them soon.

Second, Australia uses coal-fired power stations to create hydrogen. Then it is transported in a diesel truck to a servo, where an FCEV owner fills up and hydrogen is converted back to electricity again. It makes little logical sense.

With this in mind, CSIRO has developed a metal membrane that extracts hydrogen from liquid ammonia. This is a lot easier and cheaper to carry around as well as avoiding coal power. Each servo would then carry a liquid ammonia tank, membrane and hydrogen refuelling pump.

Unfortunately, the Australian market for any new vehicle is very small – only 1.15 million new cars sold last year. We are also in the minority with the UK as right-hand drivers. So Australians don’t have a lot of buying clout when it comes to new technology.

How to make it work

Hyundai says hydrogen FCEVs will be cheaper than EVs by 2030. But Mercedes Benz says it considers commercial vehicles, such as buses, to be the most likely users of hydrogen anyway.

Many experts see battery EVs as the best approach for city buyers to replace petrol cars. More expensive FCEVs would replace diesel trucks, buses and large SUVs because EVs have too many batteries and take too long to charge

Whoever spends the money to create the infrastructure may have the most influence on how the industry develops in Australia.

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Corrina Baird

Writer and Researcher, greenslips.com.au

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years in financial services and over 8 years with greenslips.com.au, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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