IAIN ROBERTSON 

Hyundai Nexo

Hyundai Nexo

Hindered by a lack of refuelling infrastructure, not aided by poor public perception about the storage of hydrogen gas, let alone its sourcing as a by-product of the petrochemical industry, Iain Robertson suggests that hydrogen is getting a bum rap.

With all of the emphasis on EVs (Electric Vehicles), while some of the technology is familiar, sales of cars powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells have been falling flat…not that so many of them have been available in the first place. Yet, with potable water being the only emission from a fuel cell ‘stack’, questions are still being asked about the ‘well-to-wheel’ sustainability of hydrogen as a semi-natural fuel resource.

The number of carmakers that have invested in the technology is still small: Hyundai, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz, although several others have dabbled. It is a factor that has led to conventional fuel suppliers being slow to build a refuelling network. Yet, in recent months, those players have increased their exposure to the alternative fuel. Hyundai, in particular, has been very active, with its Nexo production model.

Hyundai Nexo FCV

Hyundai Nexo FCV

Given the opportunity to exploit the potential, renowned French aeronaut and president of the Solar Impulse Foundation, Bertrand Piccard, has broken the world record for the longest distance travelled in a hydrogen-powered vehicle, on a single fill-up. Driving in a Hyundai Nexo (based on the firm’s Santa Fe SUV model), Piccard left the FaHyence hydrogen station in Sarreguemines on Monday 25th November, a place chosen because of the Grand Est Region’s commitment to responsible mobility, and arrived the next day at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace in Le Bourget, a total distance of 778km, or 483-miles. Never before has a production car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell covered as many kilometres on a single charge.

Mr Piccard is accustomed to extraordinary challenges, including the first round-the-world trip in a balloon, with the Breitling Orbiter, and the first round-the-world trip in a solar plane, with Solar Impulse. On this occasion, Mr Piccard was able to take along a select group of passengers for the challenge. It presented a great opportunity for the adventurer and his guests to discover a new generation of car, to share their experiences in terms of environmental protection and to compare their points of view on sustainable development and mobility. While we are unlikely to hear of the outcome, we are sure that the discussions will have endured a few peaks and troughs.

In the passenger seat alongside Bertrand Piccard were:

  • Jean Rottner, President of the Grand Est Region (French)
  • Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg
  • Michel Delpon, MP for the Dordogne and President of the Hydrogen Study Group at the National Assembly (French)
  • Benoît Potier, CEO of Air Liquide (French)
  • Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy and Finance (French)
  • Elisabeth Borne, Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition (French)
  • S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Hyundai Nexo

Hyundai Nexo

The delivery of an all-new world record was celebrated in the setting of ‘Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace’, in Le Bourget, a reference to Bertrand Piccard’s aerial exploits. In his capacity as the new world distance record holder with a hydrogen vehicle, Bertrand Piccard told us: “With this adventure, we have proven that using clean technologies demands that we no longer need revolutionary experimental prototypes to break records. I believe that everyone can now do it with standard zero-emission vehicles. A new era in performance is beginning, for the benefit of environmental protection”.

Hyundai is the first car manufacturer to mass produce hydrogen-powered vehicles. It forms part of the company’s plan to prepare actively for most governments’ zero emissions targets. Being very careful to avoid any dogmatic position on alternative energies, the South Korean brand is already responding to current changes in the car market, by offering the widest choice of electrified powertrains to its customers.

Bertrand Piccard has stated that he is committed to the planet through the challenge of 1000 Efficient and Profitable Solutions to Protect the Environment, which he initiated with the Solar Impulse Foundation. Hyundai Motor France shares a similar vision of sustainable growth and has used Piccard as its ambassador since 2017. Hyundai Motor France and Bertrand Piccard organised a major conference in Paris in September 2018, which brought together, for the first time, all of the players in the hydrogen sector in France.

Hyundai Nexo

Hyundai Nexo

However, while hydrogen may be the most abundant element on our planet, it does not appear naturally and needs to be extracted, before being compressed and stored. As a fuel source, it needs to be blended with oxygen to create electricity from a fuel stack, which then powers up the battery pack. While the current type of extraction is from natural gas, a future in removing it from biomass will cut CO2 emissions significantly. It needs to be borne in mind that even an EV, over the course of its life, emits CO2 at a rate of 124g/km, a figure that is actually greater than some petrol, or diesel-powered motor vehicles. Hydrogen could halve that figure.

There are only 20 hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, in stark contrast to over 5,000 EV recharging points. Yet, as has already been proven in Swindon, unsurprisingly the home to Honda manufacturing in the UK, hydrogen fuel stations can rely on solar power to create stocks of hydrogen, with zero reliance on the national grid. As a result, perhaps some change in attitude can be expected, especially as hydrogen can also be used most successfully for heavier transport. Unfortunately, the cost per car of becoming a hydrogen user is steep; a Toyota Mirai costs over £62,500, even with the clean vehicle grant in place. However, unit prices can reduce, as production and infrastructure numbers increase.

The World Record key figures:

  • Number of kilometres travelled: 778km (483-miles)
  • Remaining range displayed on the counter: 49km (30-miles)
  • Air purification: 404.6 kL, the volume of air that 23 adults breathe every day
  • CO2 reduction: 111.2 kg, the amount of gas emitted by vehicles of the same category over 778km.

Conclusion:     While Hyundai, Toyota and Honda will not change the hydrogen landscape, it is known that BMW, Merc and other manufacturers are pursuing developments in fuel cell vehicles, not least because existing hybrid and EV developments share much of the technology.

Hyundai Nexo FCV

Hyundai Nexo FCV