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Is Hydrogen really the answer?

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Honda FCX Clarity1

An Aston Martin completes the Nürburgring circuit powered by hydrogen within a few weeks of the UK government welcoming a timetable for switching to hydrogen cars.

With headlines like this, it’s no surprise that motorists are increasingly expecting hydrogen fuel-cell cars to be the salvation of the planet. And surely it’s only a matter of time before the practical difficulties of dealing with a highly inflammable volatile gas are overcome and we can start using this sustainable, non-polluting fuel that promises both high torque and long range.

The Department of Transport seems to think so. This spring, the Business and Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, welcomed a comprehensive report into the future of hydrogen vehicles in the UK. His language was positive, if typically vague: “The findings of the report demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles can have a real impact,” he said.

“Successful commercialisation of the technology will require government to work in strong partnership with industry. Prompt action is needed to ensure the potential benefits are realised by businesses and consumers in the UK.”

The report from the UKH2Mobility project predicted more than 1.5 million hydrogen vehicles could be on UK roads by 2030. The project is a loose group of government experts and businesses, including Nissan, Toyota, Daimler and Hyundai. Their report is available to view online at: http://tiny.cc/uk_h2mobility.

Toyota FCV-R concept car
Toyota FCV-R concept car

At the same time, London mayor Boris Johnson was promoting his London Hydrogen Partnership – another mix of official and commercial interests working on a framework to encourage hydrogen power. Their website explains their aims: http://tiny.cc/lhg.

Both organisations seem full of lofty ideals, good intentions and long-winded predictions. They also seem to be well funded. But when observers search for actual concrete progress in creating a public hydrogen infrastructure both their tanks appear to be rather dry.

More exciting real news for the motorist this spring was the appearance of the hydrogen-powered Aston Martin. Surely this is a major step towards a viable hydrogen car? The first-ever hydrogen-fuelled lap of the 24km (15-mile) circuit in Germany was driven by Aston Martin Chief Executive Officer Dr Ulrich Bez. He was at the wheel of the prototype Aston Martin Hybrid Hydrogen Rapide S. David King, Director of Special Projects at Aston Martin led the project.

He said: “This achievement should leave no one in any doubt that the system we have developed is a viable and exciting option for the future.” But wait a moment. Is there some small print after all that? Ah yes, the car is actually a hybrid that uses conventional petrol plus hydrogen.

Coincidentally it appeared just before the new Rapide S four-door sports car arrived in Aston Martin showrooms worldwide, boasting a totally un-environmental twin turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 engine. So was it, perhaps, more about marketing than real progress?

Indeed, Volkswagen’s head of research Dr Jurgen Leohold gave an interview to Autocar this spring in which he described prototype hydrogen vehicles as a “marketing exercise.” He said they are only being produced to pacify politicians. Amazingly, his views were echoed by the CEO of VW.

Martin Winterkorn - 21Around the time Aston were preparing their Nürburgring stunt, VW Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn was telling journalists that hydrogen fuel cells have failed to live up to promises and are unlikely to become an efficient and cost-effective way to power cars in the near future. Winterkorn said: “I do not see the infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles and I do not see how hydrogen can be produced on large scale at reasonable cost. I do not currently see a situation where we can offer fuel cell vehicles at a reasonable cost.”

And perhaps the most important of all this year’s developments in the alternative fuel world was a little-publicised report by Lux Research. Lux is an independent international research firm selling strategic intelligence to leading figures in business, finance and government around the world. Their study of the future of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles was completed this year.

They concluded: “Capital cost… will limit adoption, dashing dreams of a revolutionary energy future.” They said that the costs of compressing hydrogen to the 350lbs pressure needed for distribution, storage and use (the same pressure as used in the Aston Martin hybrid) will always be prohibitive.

That conclusion is likely to be potent fuel for the critics of hydrogen cars, who have always claimed that it is a time-wasting distraction from more readily available solutions like hybrids, biofuel and electric power.

Simon Heptinstall

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