Less wasteful than a petrol or diesel car, easier to use than an EV - is now the time to stop dismissing hydrogen as a load of hot air?
22 July 2019

Twenty years ago, DaimlerChrysler, as the two merged companies were called then, launched the A-Class-based Necar 4, the first production-ready fuel cell vehicle capable of being driven on public roads. The plan was for the first commercial version, dubbed, ‘Necar X’ to be launched on public sale in 2004. 

By that time, DaimlerChrysler said it would have spent over £1.1 billion on fuel cell vehicle development: it was that big and looked that certain. The board member responsible for R&D, Klaus-Dieter Vöhringer, said back then: “From 2004 to 2010, the population of fuel cell vehicles has to increase very fast otherwise the [refuelling] infrastructure will not grow.” He was dead right in one sense: it didn’t grow and fuel cell cars haven’t taken to the roads in large numbers. Yet. 

Some would say hydrogen fuel cells are the holy grail of sustainable propulsion because they emit nothing except water and heat from the tailpipe. So long as the hydrogen fuel they consume is produced sustainably, it’s an environmental free lunch with refuelling pretty much as easy and fast as it is with petrol or diesel. In common with a battery, a fuel cell ‘stack’ consists of hundreds of individual cells producing a little over one volt each. 

The favoured technology for cars and transport is the polymer exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. A fine polymer membrane sandwiched between a platinum cathode and anode and two flow plates in a kind of double-decker sandwich make up each cell. Hydrogen travels through the flow plates on the anode side while air is pumped through the cathode side as a source of oxygen. Hydrogen protons are attracted through the membrane to the oxygen, making water, leaving the hydrogen electrons behind, forming a current in an external circuit. 

There have been lots of technical hurdles to overcome – including scavenging residual water from inside the cells, which would freeze at low temperatures, starting the stack in sub-zero temperatures, economic manufacture and robustness – but today fuel cell systems are advanced, if still pricey. An entire fuel cell system consists of a stack, a carbonfibre tank capable of storing hydrogen at 750 bar and a small lithium ion battery to deliver both the fast surge of power needed for acceleration and to store energy from regenerative braking. Tough hydrogen tanks split and release hydrogen rather than exploding if damaged and, in that sense, the world’s most plentiful element is safer than petrol. The rest of the powertrain is like that of any other electric car, with an electric motor and power control module to manage it all. 

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It’s also 20 years since the formation of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, one of the world’s largest institutions pushing the development of fuel cell technology. With its 2030 Vision programme, it aims to get 1,000,000 fuel cell vehicles on California roads along with 1000 hydrogen filling stations by 2030. Maybe then, the fuel cell ball will really start rolling. 

New train of thought

Hydrogen fuel cells are ideal for large vehicles as well as cars. Two Coradia iLint fuel cell trains from French firm Alstom have been running in Germany since 2018 and 27 more have been ordered by a transport authority. A Hydroflex train masterminded by the University of Birmingham and train maker Porterbrook began UK trials in June.

Read more

Hyundai Nexo review

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell long-term test review​

Audi renews hydrogen powertrain development scheme

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Comments
32

22 July 2019

Hydrogen powered cars have so many dis-advantages it makes you wonder why Autocar pump this rubbish out.

For 3 months running at the start of the year just 3 Honda Clarities were leased in the states despite being virtually given away.   God knows how much it's cost Honda in money terms and how far they're now behind in the BEV race.

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

22 July 2019
xxxx wrote:

Hydrogen powered cars have so many dis-advantages it makes you wonder why Autocar pump this rubbish out.

For 3 months running at the start of the year just 3 Honda Clarities were leased in the states despite being virtually given away.   God knows how much it's cost Honda in money terms and how far they're now behind in the BEV race.

Aside from the obvious, cost, what are these disadvantages? Bev's also cost a lot and aren't yet affordable and production of all cars is less than green and the same for the production of their respective fuels.

I'd imagine Honda have effectively wasted a ridiculous amount of money since the infrastructure hasn't been produced, maybe the hydrogen car manufacturers should join forces and do what Tesla has done and produce refueling infrastructure.

22 July 2019
RedBack wrote:

https://theconversation.com/why-battery-powered-vehicles-stack-up-better-than-hydrogen-106844

 

Makes an interesting read, thanks.

With both bev and cell I have longevity concerns, how long will a battery last and provide the stated range for I wonder and how long will a fuel cell last before replacement is required if ever? I know ice engines don't last forever but they can have a long reliable life.

22 July 2019
si73 wrote:

RedBack wrote:

https://theconversation.com/why-battery-powered-vehicles-stack-up-better-than-hydrogen-106844

 

Makes an interesting read, thanks.

With both bev and cell I have longevity concerns, how long will a battery last and provide the stated range for I wonder and how long will a fuel cell last before replacement is required if ever? I know ice engines don't last forever but they can have a long reliable life.

Battery lifespan: It's extremely rare for a traction battery to *fail* (IIRC Nissan's never had a single one), what actually dictates battery lifespan is the level of degradation. Manufacturers provide warranties against excessive degradation, usually 25% over 8 years / 80k miles. Most cars won't get anywhere near that, but it does depend on how good the battery management system is.

Here's what you can expect with an optimal solution, active liquid-cooling, as used by Tesla, and on the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt: https://steinbuch.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/tesla-model-s-battery-degradation-data/

Here's what you can expect with the worst solution, the Nissan Leaf's passively air-cooled battery: https://www.speakev.com/attachments/leafsoh-miles-v13-png.20249/

So a liquid-cooled battery should retain good capacity for several hundred thousand miles - outliving the rest of the car in most cases. An air-cooled battery can last that long, but you do need to check the capacity before buying a used one.

---

Fuel cell lifespan is more complicated. If you were to just leave it running and never turn it off, a fuel cell can last tens of thousands of miles. What really affects the lifespan is turning it on and off, so someone doing long weekly drives will have have a much better lifespan than a short daily commute. From what I can find, the estimated typical service life of a modern fuel cell is 2000-4000 hours, which should translate to 60-120,000 miles.

There's also the longevity of the plumbing and storage vessel to consider, which frankly I have no idea about. Probably longer than the fuel cell though.

Really, what's needed are surveys of FCV owners to determine the real-world lifespan, but there are very few non-leased hydrogen cars in the world. Even then, most are <5 years old and can't stray more than 160 miles from home; high-mileage FCVs are genuine unicorns. The dataset just doesn't exist yet.

22 July 2019
Vertigo wrote:

Fuel cell lifespan is more complicated. If you were to just leave it running and never turn it off, a fuel cell can last tens of thousands of miles.

Sorry, typo - I meant to say tens of thousands of hours there.

23 July 2019
Vertigo wrote:

si73 wrote:

RedBack wrote:

https://theconversation.com/why-battery-powered-vehicles-stack-up-better-than-hydrogen-106844

 

Makes an interesting read, thanks.

With both bev and cell I have longevity concerns, how long will a battery last and provide the stated range for I wonder and how long will a fuel cell last before replacement is required if ever? I know ice engines don't last forever but they can have a long reliable life.

Battery lifespan: It's extremely rare for a traction battery to *fail* (IIRC Nissan's never had a single one), what actually dictates battery lifespan is the level of degradation. Manufacturers provide warranties against excessive degradation, usually 25% over 8 years / 80k miles. Most cars won't get anywhere near that, but it does depend on how good the battery management system is.

Here's what you can expect with an optimal solution, active liquid-cooling, as used by Tesla, and on the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt: https://steinbuch.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/tesla-model-s-battery-degradation-data/

Here's what you can expect with the worst solution, the Nissan Leaf's passively air-cooled battery: https://www.speakev.com/attachments/leafsoh-miles-v13-png.20249/

So a liquid-cooled battery should retain good capacity for several hundred thousand miles - outliving the rest of the car in most cases. An air-cooled battery can last that long, but you do need to check the capacity before buying a used one.

---

Fuel cell lifespan is more complicated. If you were to just leave it running and never turn it off, a fuel cell can last tens of thousands of miles. What really affects the lifespan is turning it on and off, so someone doing long weekly drives will have have a much better lifespan than a short daily commute. From what I can find, the estimated typical service life of a modern fuel cell is 2000-4000 hours, which should translate to 60-120,000 miles.

There's also the longevity of the plumbing and storage vessel to consider, which frankly I have no idea about. Probably longer than the fuel cell though.

Really, what's needed are surveys of FCV owners to determine the real-world lifespan, but there are very few non-leased hydrogen cars in the world. Even then, most are <5 years old and can't stray more than 160 miles from home; high-mileage FCVs are genuine unicorns. The dataset just doesn't exist yet.

The Tesla battery and as such other liquid cooled batteries, I assume, certainly seem safe bets as used purchases, I noticed the comment about battery balancing to allow a more accurate depiction of range available, two things come to mind there, when buying used if this isn't done and you check a fully charged cars range, it may well be inaccurate and the comment about a battery should never be left at 0 or 100% for more than 2 hrs, not being at 0% should be easy to avoid but surely if on charge overnight it could easily exceed 2hrs at 100%?

The Nissan batteries seem a lot less impressive, looking like the real world range of a gen 1 dropping from near 100 miles to around 75-80 miles after only 8000 miles, and many used examples have 40k + miles implying the range could be quite minimal, and if the battery balancing hasn't been done the depicted range may well be inaccurate. These don't seem like safe used buys or even new buys if you intended to keep for a long time. Battery lease doesn't mitigate this for me as the minimum lease cost of £50 ish is more than I spend on petrol a month, so as much as I like the idea of having an electric car, used obviously as I can't afford new, I still have concerns, and I think the fuel cell used would provide even greater concerns.

 

Lots of interesting information in this thread, be nice if Autocar did a more balanced report and review of the available alternatives to ice along with long term usage and degradation.

22 July 2019
si73 wrote:

RedBack wrote:

https://theconversation.com/why-battery-powered-vehicles-stack-up-better-than-hydrogen-106844

 

Makes an interesting read, thanks.

With both bev and cell I have longevity concerns, how long will a battery last and provide the stated range for I wonder and how long will a fuel cell last before replacement is required if ever? I know ice engines don't last forever but they can have a long reliable life.

You're right to worry about the fuel cell, but, you should probably be more worried about the tanks. Next time you see a H car review look for a picture of the the inside of a fuel flap you're be alarmed!!!  

p.s. don't let Toyota know I told you

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

22 July 2019
The cost of each hydrogen refueling station is an order of magnitude greater than an EV station.
Compared to EVs, Fuel Cell cars are more expensive to build (they are essentially EVs with extra parts) less practical (hardware is very bulky), less efficient (around 1/3 as efficient as EVs), slower and require a lot more maintenance.

22 July 2019
shiakas wrote:

The cost of each hydrogen refueling station is an order of magnitude greater than an EV station.
Compared to EVs, Fuel Cell cars are more expensive to build (they are essentially EVs with extra parts) less practical (hardware is very bulky), less efficient (around 1/3 as efficient as EVs), slower and require a lot more maintenance.

Yeah, this sums it all up really. If the hydrogen comes from methane (95% of today's production), they're no greener than a conventional non-plug-in hybrid. If it comes from electrolysis, it's using three times as much electricity as an electric car. Whether they actually should be considered 'green' in today's world is debatable.

The article reads like a promotion. I don't recall anything like this for EVs from Autocar, despite the endless reams of misinformation out there.

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