The future of hydrogen cars in the UK

Published: 11 Oct 2012

Long touted as the green solution to transport problems, hydrogen vehicles haven’t yet delivered on their promise, and to those who claim they are not sufficiently cost-effective, and too reliant on ‘brown’ non-renewable fuel for environmental credibility, they never will.

However, there are enough companies with sufficient interest in the technology to make this more than a futurologist’s pipe-dream, and here’s why.

If hydrogen vehicles became reality, they would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions and do away with the political and economic issues that surround the use of hydro-carbon based fuels.

But there are significant issues to be overcome, most particularly a lack of willingness to invest in long-term development and infrastructure by interested parties.

Broad market projections made by sustainable energy consultancy E4tech suggest that there could be 1.5 million hydrogen cars on the road globally by 2020, with this figure taking off to 35m just ten years later. However, such predictions seem to fly in the face of the growing presence of battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (EVs) which do have more than a toe-hold in the marketplace.

But researchers aren’t concerned by the apparent anomaly. No problem say those who believe that hydrogen vehicles offer a benefit that can’t be matched by EVs – namely ‘range’.

While EVs are more efficient at converting renewable electricity into transport fuel, their slow recharge time effectively limits the distance they are able to travel before having to plug in. For anyone wanting or needing to travel longer distances, that’s a major problem. After all, when you go anywhere out of town you probably want to come back the same day, not be faced with an enforced stopover while your car recharges its va-va-voom. That leaves the poor old electric car as pretty much a commuter vehicle that’s tied to the National Grid.

On the other hand, when hydrogen vehicles need filling up, it’s done in minutes, not hours.

That said, being able to travel further is of little use if you can’t get the fuel you need to come back, which makes the development of a hydrogen infrastructure an imperative if hydrogen technology is to gain ground nationwide.

It doesn’t require much imagination to see that if H-stations are to become as ubiquitous as the petrol pump, there has to be substantial investment, not to mention the practical issues that have to be overcome. This includes the health and safety measures needed for the widespread safe handling of hydrogen, the difficulties of metering this gas - and how you can tell when there’s a leak? As hydrogen doesn’t smell, there are no early warning signs and adding an odorant won’t work as it makes the fuel cells in a hydrogen vehicle ineffective.

However, while we may not yet be at the dawn of a Hydrogen Age, there are a few streaks of light in the distance, with several major manufacturers, such as Toyota and Daimler, stating their intention to make hydrogen cars commercially available by 2015.


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