25 November 2014

Hydrogen - an answer to pollution in cities?

For automotive transport, hydrogen power is one possible answer to the huge challenge of cities looking to control their pollution levels - producing tailpipe emissions of water.  But, other than a couple of small scale pilots, the odd bus and taxi funded by a couple of technology grants, the technology isn't going anywhere is it?  Well, car manufacturers seem to think differently, with a recent push for production-ready models being introduced.  In parallel to this, researchers have found potential for the 'wonder material' graphene to potentially support hydrogen fuel cell development.

Below, I'll introduce a selection of hydrogen cars, a reference to public transport solutions, the refuelling infrastructure, and where the hydrogen comes from.

The Car's the Star...

Here's a selection of cars which are powered by Hydrogen now (in alphabetical order).  Some were launched in the last five years, but interestingly,  recent motor shows (especially LA) have seen a bit of a proliferation, which is encouraging that R&D spend is being spent on commercialising the technology.

Most cars have carbon-fibre reinforced hydrogen storage tanks onboard (refilled in as little as 3 minutes).  The hydrogen is then mixed with air (oxygen specifically) in a fuel cell (the clever bit with a catalyst), which generates energy to power an electric motor to the drivetrain.  Additional batteries may provide the ability to capture the energy from braking.

Audi A7 h-Tron

Audi A7 h-tron

  • 228bhp
  • carbon-fibre hydrogen tanks
  • four wheel drive
  • low-temperature proton exchange membrane (LT PEM) fuel cell stack
  • Range up to 311 miles
  • Platinum catalyst
  • Incorporates a plug-in 8.8kW/h lithium-ion battery to improve range further 
  • 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds

More information on Autocar's website here.

BMW Hydrogen 7

BMW Hydrogen 7

BMW have made 100 Hydrogen 7 cars available to 'leading figures in the world' (seems mine has got a little waylaid).

*UPDATE* Dec 18th 2014 - BMW have confirmed they are continuing to invest in Hydrogen (in partnership with Toyota) - see Autocar for more information.

Honda FCV

Honda FCV
  • Successor to the FCX Clarity
  • Expected 2016 release
  • 300+ mile range (Honda hope!)
  • 3-5 minute refueling time
More information here.

Hyundai ix35 FCEV

  • Plans to manufacture 1000 vehicles by 2015
  • 369 mile range, on 3 minutes fuelling

More information here.

Mercedes B-Class F-CELL

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL

  • 200 vehicles were delivered to customers in December 2010

More information here.

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai
In 1997, Toyota changed the rules of the game, by introducing the Prius.  Well, it's at it again, so we should probably take this pretty seriously - the Mirai.

To attract motorists on the West Coast of the US, they have developed a pretty impressive microsite - check it out here.

*UPDATE - Jan 2015* Toyota have opened their fuel-cell patents to others

Volkswagen Golf SportWagen HyMotion

VW Hymotion

  • Uses a low-temperature proton exchange membrane (LT-PEM) - presumably very similar to their sister group Audi use in the A7 h-tron, above
Some more details from Autocar here.


Back in 2010, Volvo announced work to develop the C30 DRIVe Electric to incorporate a hydrogen fuel cell, to help extend the range.

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric
More information here.

Public Transport is joining in...


For London 2012 Olympics, five iconic black cabs were launched, powered by hydrogen.  Here's a (not that exciting!) video showing them:

They were refuelled at Heathrow, and used to take dignitaries into London.  Apparently, they have a range of 250mph, and one has been as fast as 95mph on a test track.


Transport for London (TfL) runs a fleet of 8 hydrogen buses on its tourist-friendly RV1 bus route:

RV1 Hydrogen Bus, London

More information can be found here from the 2010 press release.  This of course misses the subsequent news that the buses were temporarily withdrawn from the route during the London 2012 Olympics, as part of a hazardous materials ban.

Refuelling Infrastructure

Of course, having hydrogen vehicles is only part of the puzzle, you also need viable options to refuel them (much like the current 'range anxiety' issues with EVs).  For the UK though, there is some good progress:

*UPDATE - January 2015* In Japan, Tokyo's making investments in hydrogen infrastructure ahead of the 2020 Olympics, in helping reduce its reliance on Nuclear.  As reported by Bloomberg, they are hoping to build 35 refueling stations, and have 6000 hydrogen cars on the road by then.

But where does the Hydrogen come from?

Having tailpipe emissions of just water is pretty attractive, especially in cities like London, which are under incredible pressure to reduce their emissions.  However, it's important that any environmental impact isn't just externalised somewhere else, namely at the point of hydrogen manufacture.

Hydrogen is of course everywhere, in fact it's earth's most abundant element.  The snag is that it tends to hang-around pretty closely with its other element friends, and it takes a fair bit of energy to separate them.  So, the trick is to be able to isolate it, and store it safely.  There are a few options (taken from Toyota's helpful site):

  • Gasification - high temperature organic waste
  • Steam reforming - high temperature reaction between methane (natural gas). and steam
  • Electrolysis - passing current through water, to separate hydrogen and oxygen

Some of these sources aren't free of emissions, so there needs to be an ongoing push to source the energy needed from low-carbon sources, else we won't have delivered a net environmental benefit.  And on that note, it's worth celebrating a UK first, courtesy of Honda, who have recently launched a solar-powered hydrogen production and refuelling facility on their Swindon site - what an incredible achievement!

Honda's hydrogen production and refuelling facility

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