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Hydrogen: filling up on the future

While electric vehicles continue to steal the headlines, there is, in fact, another state-of-the-art motoring option that’s rapidly gaining steam. In part four of an ongoing series, we look at how the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle could change the definition of ‘eco-friendly’.

When it comes to electric cars, it’s usually pretty simple: plug it in, charge it up and away you go. Hydrogen powered vehicles are slightly more mysterious, but they certainly have their advantages. So which technology will win the race to the consumer’s garage?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) produce only two byproducts during the energy production process – heat and water – making emissions-free driving a reality; they can be refueled at high-pressure hydrogen filling stations in just minutes, rather than the minimum 30 minutes required for EVs; and they offer significantly increased range over standard EVs.

With one projection seeing hydrogen powering between 10 and 15 million cars and half a million trucks worldwide by 2030, manufacturers are starting to place their bets too. Gavin Young, technical manager at Hyundai New Zealand, says that while we’ve only just scratched the surface of what HFCVs can do, it’s already apparent that the potential is huge.

Think of large fleets of trucks, buses and passenger vehicles or even forklifts, all running on fuel cell powertrains. All of this hydrogen could be produced at a main depot facility and they wouldn't even need to visit fuel stations.

— Gavin Young 

“Hyundai has invested billions of dollars in R&D into the fuel cell space – and achieved some amazing things in a very short space of time,” he says. “Other manufacturers are investing as well and alternative powertrains are definitely the next space that everyone should be thinking in.”

One of the great opportunities is the bus and coach industry. While electric buses (with their 100-150 kilometre range) are fine for city runs, charging during longer trips soon becomes an issue. Using fuel cell technology, we can expect to see bus fleets running in excess of 400 to 500 kilometres before needing to refuel.

“There’s huge potential for the tourism, public transport and heavy commercial trucking industries to benefit from fuel cell technology,” says Young. “Think of large fleets of trucks, buses and passenger vehicles or even forklifts, all running on fuel cell powertrains. All of this hydrogen could be produced at a main depot facility and they wouldn't even need to visit fuel stations. They could do it all themselves.”

But it’s not just the workhorses of industry that stand to gain. In January, Hyundai unveiled its purpose-built consumer option, the Hyundai NEXO Fuel Cell SUV. This is the company’s first dedicated fuel-cell platform and it has a range of 600-plus kilometres between refuels.

Researcher and One World Consulting director Dr Linda Wright was part of a Kiwi contingent that flew to Korea to test the vehicle and to see just what the technology could do.

“Driving the Level 4 autonomous NEXO was an incredible experience for me,” she says. “An otherworldly, ‘out there’ experience. Imagine speeding down the road in this beautiful vehicle, nobody with their hands on the wheel, and seeing it responding at traffic lights and going around roundabouts, watching the sensitivities of it navigating the open road and the busy traffic of the city. It’s just incredible technology. And all with zero emissions, of course.”

So when can we expect the hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicle to gain mainstream acceptance in New Zealand? Well, that’s a slightly trickier proposition.

“The biggest hurdle for hydrogen as an option is infrastructure,” says Young. “The commissioning of hydrogen refueling stations is expensive, potentially running into a few million dollars depending on the size, so it’s currently about finding how we can best implement an infrastructure in New Zealand that can meet the needs of drivers and get the maximum value from that investment.”

Expensive or not, however, Wright says that where there’s a will, there’s definitely a way.

“The Japanese are investing trillions of yen in a hydrogen economy and Germany will be the first country with an interconnected network of refueling stations, so it’s now about New Zealand realising the opportunities we have here, especially in terms of our renewable energy advantage.”

She says the next step for New Zealand is about starting at a reasonable scale, demonstrating the value of the infrastructure and then working with the government to make sure we’re all working to the same international standards.

“It all already exists globally,” she says. “But we need adopt the right standards and to collaborate to deliver on the promise. It’s achievable and luckily the government is very open, supportive and understanding to what’s going on.”

For more information on electric vehicles visit hyundai.co.nz/electric-cars or call 0800 493 640.

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