Take it as read that the hydrogen fuel cell is coming to a car park near you. While battery EVs and hybrids are the current new-tech go-tos, it won’t be long before a fuel cell-powered car or SUV could be in your future.
On the surface, a fuel cell which uses hydrogen to create electricity is a commendably efficient way to go. Depending on the actual fuel cell, these devices are reckoned to be between 40 and 60 per cent efficient.
That’s partly because hydrogen needs to be compressed into a liquid form that a fuel cell can use, and that costs about 15 per cent of the gas’ efficiency. Another 25 per cent is lost in the electrolysis process (which separates the hydrogen from the water molecules in the first place).
Independent, real-world tests conducted her at CarsGuide have shown that on an efficiency level the fuel cell vehicle can make sense.
A comparison between the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai (both of which are available here in tiny numbers as evaluation and government fleet vehicles) showed that either vehicle could travel 100km in freeway conditions on between 0.76kg (Mirai) and 0.9kg (Nexo) of hydrogen. Since the vehicles both have tanks of about 5.5kg capacity, that gives them plenty of range.
The catch is the current wholesale price of hydrogen. At $15 or so a kilo, filling each car is about the same as filling a petrol car with a 50-litre tank. However, pundits predict that price will fall, but where it will ultimately land is anybody’s guess.
There’s also the question of infrastructure. It doesn’t really matter how efficient your fuel cell car is if there’s nowhere to fill up. At the moment, the three public hydrogen filling stations in Australia are in Melbourne (operated by Toyota), Sydney (Hyundai) and Canberra (ActewAGL). Suddenly, that projected 600km range is more important than ever.
Depending on the actual fuel cell, these devices are reckoned to be between 40 and 60 per cent efficient.
Where a hydrogen fuel cell does its best work, of course, is in terms of emissions. In fact, the only tailpipe emission is water – a by-product of the fuel-cell process.
However, the real story is only revealed once you know how the hydrogen has been produced in the first place. If it’s what’s called green hydrogen, it’s been produced in a carbon-zero way from renewable energy (wind and solar, mostly).
But if it’s blue, brown, black or any other colour of hydrogen, there will have been some carbon emissions in its production. So you’re moving the pollution, not eliminating it.
Clearly, hydrogen fuel cell efficiency is one thing, but as with all great ideas it comes down to the wholistic view. Green hydrogen is clearly the preference, and while the technology is there to do just that, plenty of hydrogen is still being made the old, dirty way.
At the moment, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo are the only hydrogen fuel cell vehicles you can find in Australia, and even then, they’re not readily available to the public.
In the Mirai’s case, Toyota is leasing the car to interested organisations for a cost of $63,000 over three years. The catch is you’d need to be based somewhere within coo-ee of Altona in Melbourne’s west, as that’s where the only filling station is located.