The dream of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells has been around nearly as long as vehicles themselves, for the theory of fuel cells is straightforward: just set up a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, then sit back and enjoy lots of free electricity – simples!
So why have we not seen fuel-cell-powered vehicles on our roads in large numbers before now? In short, cost. For starters, unlike most other fuels, hydrogen does not exist in its’ natural state and needs to be produced, usually from oil. Secondly, because it is inherently explosive, it needs very careful handling & storage, both in depots and on-board vehicles. And thirdly, fuel cells themselves tend to be expensive, although this is largely due to their low-volume nature, higher volumes will undoubtedly bring prices down to more realistic levels.
Generally therefore fuel-cell-powered vehicles have tended to be almost one-off technology demonstrators – curiosities of the automotive world.
Until now: Hyundai, not so long ago regarded as an Asian upstart manufacturer of mediocre motors have demonstrated just how far the South Korean company have developed in their comparatively short lifetime by launching the worlds’ first production fuel cell vehicle. And not one which could be produced only in theory, either: you can walk into a Hyundai showroom today and buy, or at least order, a fuel-cell-powered car, without needing to rob a bank to pay for it. The fuel cell Hyundai ix35 is still not cheap, at around £53,000, and even that is with the benefit of the UK Governments £15,000 “HyFive” grant. To put that into perspective, a top-spec diesel ix35 is priced at around £28,000, so there is still a fairly steep price to pay for being a green innovator. Still, the technology has to start somewhere, and we were privileged to grab one of the first UK drives of a hydrogen-powered ix35 recently at Millbrook Proving Ground.
First impressions of the technological marvel, at least once you looked past the prominent graphics adorning the test car just to remind you that it was indeed a fuel cell vehicle, was that it was just like any other ix35 to look at, sit in, and indeed drive.
Externally, the only outward indication – apart from those graphics – was a discreet round hydrogen filling point where the fuel filler would normally be.
Even inside the car all appears absolutely standard. On closer examination, though, the boot floor is a little higher than on the standard car: lifting the floor panel reveals that the reason for this is to accommodate the rather bulky hydrogen tank.
Hyundai reckon that a large part of the extra cost of the fuel-cell ix35 is in fact down to the high cost of the tank, which is designed & manufactured to an extremely high standard to prevent damage and potential hydrogen leakage in an impact. Indeed, the tank is so strong that apparently any impact great enough to damage the tank would be non-survivable anyway.
Under the bonnet, things don’t look too different either, with the usual large black plastic covers over the oily bits, or not-so-oily-bits in the case of this car. Just a pity Hyundai didn’t spend a few pounds on adding a couple of gas struts to support the incredibly heavy bonnet whilst open. Some people may be surprised to see a radiator in there, although of course even fuel cells generate heat, or rather their associated electrics do.
On the road, the fuel cell ix35 handled much like the standard car. Although it weighs some 400kg more than the equivalent petrol model, a fair bit of the weight is low down, so whilst there was a noticeable amount of body roll on the Millbrooks’ tough hill route, it was not excessive. Performance was acceptable rather than, er, electric, not helped by the fuel cell’s modest 135 horses having to drag around all that extra weight. Again, though, the ix35 has to be seen as the first of what could be many fuel cell powered cars in the years to come. Hyundai are to be congratulated for taking such a brave step in introducing such a groundbreaking vehicle.
Of course, take-up of fuel-cell power depends on the ready availability of hydrogen for refuelling. Here things go a bit awry, for the UK presently has – wait for it – just 15 hydrogen filling stations, with three of those in London. Perversely, one of the filling stations is in the Outer Hebrides: driving there from the South of England could be a bit of a challenge though, as there are presently no hydrogen refuelling points between Sheffield & Aberdeen.
That said, Hyundai claim that the ix35 has a range of 369 miles, far better than any present full electric vehicle, Tesla included, so assuming this range is in fact genuine, range anxiety may not be so much of a problem. And filling the hydrogen tank takes only 3 minutes, unlike the protracted charging times of even the best electric cars. Until the supply of hydrogen becomes more established, fuel costs are a little unclear. At present, however, it is understood that a full tank of hydrogen (5.6 kg) costs around £60, although this should drop to around £36. Sp presently a hydrogen car could cost around 16p per mile to run, around the same as an equivalent petrol motor, with the prospect of this dropping to a more attractive 10p or so.
The number of filling stations will surely increase, although how fast is anybodies guess. Until then, sales of fuel cell ix35’s will inevitably be limited, which is in many ways unfair to Hyundai, who have sunk huge amounts into fuel-cell vehicle development, and deserve to see some return on their colossal, and brave, investment.
Interested? Find out more on Hyundai’s website here: http://www.hyundai.co.uk/about-us/environment/hydrogen-fuel-cell