While pure Electric Vehicles (EVs) are growing in popularity year-on-year, there’s another alternative vehicle propulsion technology that has been gathering momentum around the globe for a few years now – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs).

As the name suggests, these cars are also electric but use a hydrogen fuel stack in place of the battery in a ‘regular’ EV to power the electric motor.

Big cities where strict emissions regulations are enforced have had FCEVs on their roads for a while now, with models such as the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai and more lately the Hyundai NEXO all using hydrogen technology.

Benefits of hydrogen

One of the benefits of FCEVs is that they are able to have a longer range - similar to an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle.

They’re also faster to fill up, have zero toxic emissions (the by-product is water), and potentially a clean process to generate the compressed hydrogen fuel. These benefits collectively make it a perfect solution for larger scale vehicles and machine operations.

Interestingly, Auckland Transport has begun a two year trial of three-axle hydrogen fuel cell buses, which will assess operational performance and compare operating costs to conventional diesel and electric buses of similar configurations. The trial will cost $1.175 million, with the estimated cost of the full transition to zero-emission buses (including both EV and FCEV) expected to cost between $150 million to $200 million.

How is hydrogen produced?

A hydrogen fuel cell produces electricity by means of electrochemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. During this reaction, hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce electrical energy and harmless water vapour is emitted from the ‘exhaust’.

The hydrogen itself can be produced by running this process in reverse, which is called electrolysis. Running an electrical current through water separates the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. This method is attractive for NZ as we have a high percentage of sustainable and renewable electricity generation resources.

Other methods of creating hydrogen are High Pressure Steam Reforming of methane and Gasification where organic waste is converted into hydrogen under high pressure.  

One current downside of this technology is that it currently comes at a rather hefty price, even compared to EVs. Overseas, these vehicles are often leased rather than purchased due to the high cost, although this price point should naturally lower with time as technology develops.

Refuelling an FCEV

Hydrogen refuelling stations have not gone up anywhere near as quickly as BEV charge stations have, but infrastructure is slowly advancing globally. For example, in the USA (where there is one of the highest FCEV populations), there are only 49 filling stations at the time of writing.

The hurdles faced is the immense cost to set up a hydrogen filling station as opposed to an EV charger. Furthermore, the production of hydrogen takes a lot of electricity and time to carryout out the process.

New Zealand has an abundant supply of renewable energy, which could arguably be ideal for green hydrogen creation.

Hydrogen investment

Each year, the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund (LEVCF) offers up to $6.5 million to projects that will accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) and other low emission vehicles.

Back in 2018, Hyundai New Zealand received $500,000 towards its hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) truck project.

We spoke with Hyundai NZ General Manager Andy Sinclair at the time, and he said it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg scenario: “We’ve brought in the egg, and now someone needs to build the chicken”.

When asked about the high electricity use in creating hydrogen, Sinclair commented that it’s best to create hydrogen using the excess electricity that can’t be stored during off-peak times.

“Just like in the Netherlands who use electricity from their windmill farms and then when the demand is really high, they then turn hydrogen back into electricity and put it back into the grid. So Hydrogen is and can be used as storage of electricity”.

Toyota Motor Company is a steering member of the Hydrogen Council, who estimate hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars, 15 to 20 million trucks and around 5 million busses by 2050. Toyota looks set to try and implement hydrogen power in its most popular vehicle in New Zealand - the Hilux. They’ve acknowledged a partnership with Kenworth and the development of hydrogen technology for vehicles like the Hilux.

So, is it the future?

There’s certainly an interest in FCEVs, particularly for industries which rely on heavy vehicles.

With the government’s proposed Clean Car Standard looming over manufacturers, they’ll no doubt be looking at the latest technology to try and carbon neutralise their fleets.

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