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Are fuel cells closer than we think?

By / 8 years ago / Features / No Comments

In February, Hyundai claimed a world first when it began assembly line production of its first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, the ix35 FCEV, at its plant in Ulsan, South Korea. Manufactured on the same line as the conventional ix35, these first 1,000 vehicles will be leased to European fleet customers as part of on-going plans to ready the technology for mass-market commercialisation, expected in 2015.

Hydrogen fuel cells are an entirely different technology to the hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines, which several manufacturers have tested in the past. The cars are technologically closer to the growing battery-electric and plug-in hybrid sector, but offer an ownership experience not dissimilar to a petrol or diesel car.

Like a plug-in car, power is supplied to the wheels using an electric motor. But a hydrogen fuel cell car doesn’t require a large battery, which has to be recharged from an external source. Instead, the electricity used to drive the car is generated on board.

The chemical reaction used to generate the electricity is similar to a reversed electrolysis. Compressed hydrogen is fed from the tank into the car’s fuel cell stack, where it expands and is separated into positive and negative ions using a catalytic membrane. The negative ions pass through an external circuit, where they generate the electricity used to drive the car, before being reunited with the positive ions and oxygen from the air, creating pure water as the only by-product.

This also offers a much more familiar ownership experience to the long recharging times of plug-in cars. Take the ix35 FCEV to a hydrogen refuelling station and it takes a few minutes to refuel, offering a range of up to 525km with nothing but water vapour coming from the tailpipe. Hydrogen can even be produced using renewable energy, so the fuel station of the future could gather rainwater and use either wind or solar energy to power the electrolysis used to separate the hydrogen and oxygen.

But there are problems. The technology is still expensive to manufacture, and hydrogen refuelling stations are scarce. Hyundai’s first fleet customers in Europe, which include the Municipality of Copenhagen and European Union officials and policymakers who have begun year-long trials in Brussels, will be providing invaluable real-world usage data, which could shape the way the supporting infrastructure develops.

In the meantime, Hyundai is investing heavily in the groundwork, which it hopes will allow the technology to become commercially viable. The carmaker is part of the government-backed UK H2Mobility consortium in the UK, which will generate an action plan for refuelling station roll-out over the coming years, and alongside Nissan, Toyota and Honda it is supporting the development of a Nordic recharging network too.

By the time the first batch of 1,000 cars has been manufactured, Hyundai expects to have sufficiently reduced manufacturing costs and to have enough of a refuelling network in place to bring its second-generation production fuel cell car to market. Once the infrastructure develops to support it, this is a technology which could finally provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels. 

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.

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