As the UK’s fledgling hydrogen filling station network begins to expand, we've joined a rally of vehicles powered by the fuel of the future
Steve Cropley Autocar
19 November 2016

It was that word ‘rally’ that caught our attention.

Come to a rally for hydrogen-powered cars, said the invitation from ITM Power, the UK’s only specialist in the production and storage of hydrogen. Join us at one of our existing filling stations, drive to a new one we’re opening in Rainham, Essex, and see how it feels not to emit a single molecule of noxious gas on along the way.

We were hooked. Previous contact with ITM’s boss, Graham Cooley, had convinced me that hydrogen cars were credible and supply of the fuel was expanding. I’d read forecasts of a critical mass of 65 UK hydrogen stations in the medium term, while a drive in the new Toyota Mirai a few months ago had demonstrated the capability of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The plan was for us to join Cooley and his crew at their established filling station beside the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, on London’s south-western outskirts, then to drive 60-odd miles to a new solar-powered station at Rainham, Essex, the latest of several ITM has under construction. Here, solar power is used to make hydrogen from water with no help from pollution-generating hydrocarbons. This would be the ultimate clean drive.

The plan was that I’d drive a Toyota Mirai, while my colleague Jim Holder would bring the new hydrogen-powered Hyundai ix35 SUV we’re about to add to our test fleet. This would hardly be rallying at WRC level, but it might be just as significant. We pitched up in Teddington at the appointed 10am, and after time taken over photographs and who’s-driving-what, we fell to fuelling the cars.

Filling a hydrogen car is simple. You offer your card to a card reader, taking the dispenser hose when you see a positive response on the screen. Plug the dispenser into your car’s fuel tank aperture, noticing a red ring around the gas pipe that allows the pump to ‘talk’ to the car via infra-red communication. The car grabs the nozzle, there’s a short delay while the pair communicate, a buzz while the system tests itself and verifies all seals and then hydrogen starts to flow at 700bar – and -40deg C – into your tank.

At the end there’s a loud blow-off noise as the pressure is released, you’re invited to remove the nozzle and the job is done. In the Mirai, which holds 60 litres, you’re good for 300 miles-plus, but whereas 60 litres of petrol weighs around 40kg, the full hydrogen tank adds only an eighth of that to the Mirai’s kerb weight.

Anyone familiar with driving to Essex from west London will know there’s a stark choice between 50-odd miles of congested city driving or a longer, more peaceful 68-mile sojourn on the orbital M25 motorway. We chose the latter. Cruising nose to tail, the Toyota and Hyundai did what electric cars do best, cruising smoothly and quietly with the traffic at 60-70mph. The Mirai was roomy and luxurious, the ix35 somewhat more mainstream. Both were not only impressively refined to drive but also, more importantly, intuitive and easy. If we needed reassurance that hydrogen-powered cars need not affect – and might even enhance – our future driving convenience and pleasure, here it was.

Driving along, Cooley reiterated the reasons for his lifelong enthusiasm for hydrogen power. As most people now know, hydrogen is clean and, now the appropriate systems have been designed, easy to handle. Fuel cell stacks are getting smaller, cheaper and easier to accommodate in cars. Toyota talks of the Mirai and its prospects (700 built last year, 30,000 planned for 2020) much as it did the Prius 20 years ago, and that seminal hybrid model’s worldwide sales last year passed eight million. Those are the givens.

But Cooley’s big thing is hydrogen’s potential as an energy storage medium – on a huge scale. There are frequent times when the national potential for generating electricity surpasses demand, such as when the wind rotates turbines at night, yet it’s lost because we don’t have an economic means of storage. In future, ITM-style hydrogen generators could convert that power to hydrogen, store it in the gas grid (which is three times the size of the power grid) and recover it for conversion back to electric power when demand dictates. It’s efficient and quick, says Cooley, it’s called grid balancing and Big Government is taking it very seriously. In such an environment, a hydrogen infrastructure for cars suddenly looks practical – and Shell, with whom ITM already has an embryonic deal, thinks so too.

By the time we arrived in Essex, I was profoundly impressed. The Mirai’s performance helped: we used exactly one kilogram of fuel – priced on the bowser at £9.95 per kilo – for 68.5 miles. Mr Holder’s Hyundai did the same. In petrol terms, that’s around 26mpg, and it implies a touring range for the Mirai of 360 miles. For the time being, hydrogen costs around a third more than petrol, but Cooley says that price will fall. “Watch hydrogen,” he told us as we departed back to the office. “It’s going places.”

Our Verdict

Toyota Mirai

Toyota claims another first: Europe’s first ‘ownable’ hydrogen car

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Comments
17

19 November 2016
This story makes the already rubbish case for hydrogen cars even worse .." New solar-powered station at Rainham" you need nearly 3 times the amount of electricity to create the hydrogen fuel as to power a pure EV the same distance, solar power alone will never be enough at a station as Hydrogen as a fuel is so inefficient.
26mpg at a CRUISE is twice as much as a diesel would have used (10 times more than an EV) and in a compromised car that costs nearly £75,000 before the £15,000 government grant!
"Toyota talks of the Mirai and its prospects (700 built last year, 30,000 planned for 2020" odear they obviously haven't read Toyota plans (in Autocar a couple of days ago) to develop EV's and put the Hydrogen car on the back burner!

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

19 November 2016
~In short nowhere since BMW tried 10 years ago with the Hydrogen fuelled 7 series. I said earlier the EV was 10 times cheaper in fuel costs, quick check and its actually 17 times cheaper! go figure

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

19 November 2016
No surprise to see @xxxx all over this article straight from the off. I don't have the knowledge to argue for or against this technology, but undoubtedly oil-based fluids will no longer be powering our vehicles at some point in the future. Some big companies obviously consider hydrogen worthy of investigation and are quite capable of making it happen: all it needs is a nationwide network (effectively replacing our present petrol/diesel stations) and economy of scale. I can envisage a world where both EVs and hydrogen cars co-exist quite happily, hydrogen offering the advantage of quick refuelling. I look forward to being able to walk the footpaths of my local town without the sting of noxious fumes in my throat (but I suspect I'll be dead before I get the chance).

Wide cars in a world of narrow.

19 November 2016
Not so sure about the co-existence of electric and hydrogen cars being something to aim for. Been discussing this on another forum, turns out that replacing the UK's petrol/diesel stations with hydrogen electrolysis+filling stations would cost about £50.8 billion in equipment alone - enough for 127 million home chargers, or 1.4 million rapid charging posts.

Additionally, encouraging a mindset of "wait for hydrogen", which has been prevalent for a decade and a half, means buyers stick with their combustion vehicles, contributing to climate change and respiratory-related diseases. These are issues that need sorting *now*.

And the thing is, there's not really a reason for it. The two main justifications for an FCV over BEV are range and on-the-go charging time. Well, we've just seen a hypercar-accelerating Tesla go further than a Mirai, and by the end of the decade, the latest charging standard will deliver 90 miles every five minutes.

...At which point, why bother with a an FCV? They're definitely not greener to run, and possibly not to manufacture either. They don't save money. They're not better to drive. Not even sure about their potential use as grid balancing, as mentioned in the article, because a bigger EV industry means lowered costs of batteries, and you can retain a lot more excess electricity by storing it in a battery than by converting it into hydrogen.

19 November 2016
EVs are a short term solution to a long term problem, where as Hydrogen is a long term solution to a long term problem.

19 November 2016
Sounds like losing's talk. People will never trade in their faster, cheaper to buy, 17 times cheaper to run, greener, better packaged EV in 30, 40 or 50 years. Coincidentally the one EV downside of range will be resolved for 95% of people as it'll be 300 miles plus.

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

19 November 2016
IF electric cars could recahrge quickly and IF ther were millions of them in use in winter when demand for electricty was high and IF a significant proportion all tried to recharge at 6pm on a cold Friday night, the National Grid would collapse due to overload.

That would not happen as the power stations could not deliver the power required.It's marginal by current projections for 2025 before any new large nuclear capacity is on stream.
Think 2040

Mike

19 November 2016
Some rapid charging stations have already started using on-site battery buffers to avoid immediate hits to the grid.

Pretty much every EV manufacturer is also investigating vehicle-to-grid schemes in which EVs with excess charge can unload it back to the grid to deal with peak demand. That's not a great deal for some early EVs like the pre-2013 Leaf which had poor battery conditioning, but more recent actively-cooled ones are virtually degradation-proof.

Unless we're using gas-reformed hydrogen, which is utterly pointless as it results in CO2 on par with an economical petrol, more electricity generation will be needed either way. Electrolysed hydrogen doesn't have a monopoly on exploiting off-peak power surplus, most EV charging is done overnight too. The difference being that an EV uses less than half as much electricity, so twice as many cars can be powered within that surplus.

If/when we reach the stage that alternative-fuel vehicles are so populous that they could overwhelm the grid, it's worth bearing in mind that we're likely to have power freed up from petrol stations and oil refineries shutting down.

20 November 2016
Madasafish wrote:

IF electric cars could recahrge quickly and IF ther were millions of them in use in winter when demand for electricty was high and IF a significant proportion all tried to recharge at 6pm on a cold Friday night, the National Grid would collapse due to overload.

That would not happen as the power stations could not deliver the power required.It's marginal by current projections for 2025 before any new large nuclear capacity is on stream.
Think 2040

Norway has leaped into the EV thing and 25% of new car sales are electric. The Norwegian power head (I've got his name on my works computer but just google it) said the extra power demands are presenting no problem at all. If people charge when they're asleep and the EV migration is gradual then there'll be no problem here either

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

19 November 2016
Madasafish wrote:

IF electric cars could recahrge quickly and IF ther were millions of them in use in winter when demand for electricty was high and IF a significant proportion all tried to recharge at 6pm on a cold Friday night, the National Grid would collapse due to overload.

That would not happen as the power stations could not deliver the power required.It's marginal by current projections for 2025 before any new large nuclear capacity is on stream.
Think 2040

It's getting quite marginal now anyway due to coal stations closing. The EDF/chinese reactors they have proposed are unproven they're building 2, one in France one in Finland both are questionable whether they'll actually run, Finland is years behind and massively overunning on cost. Google European presurised water reactor if you're interested.

xxxx wrote:

Sounds like losing's talk. People will never trade in their faster, cheaper to buy, 17 times cheaper to run, greener, better packaged EV in 30, 40 or 50 years. Coincidentally the one EV downside of range will be resolved for 95% of people as it'll be 300 miles plus.

Erm these are electric cars, you just dont have the massive batteries in and arent beholden to potentially hostile foreign powers which hold about 90%+ of the rare earth minerals.

Also you dont have to wait 30mins for it to fill up a bit

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