Hydrogen has long been seen by many as the end-game in terms of vehicle propulsion.

The only by-product or emission is water, it can be in plentiful supply and there are no more range anxieties than there would be with a petrol or diesel car because the vehicles are fuelled in a couple of minutes from a pump, just as we do at the moment.

Plug-in hybrid and electric cars may be the short-term solution to lowering emissions, along with continued improvements to internal combustion engines, but the only option for a complete zero-carbon footprint appears to be hydrogen fuel-cell.

Several car manufacturers are working on the technology, with Daimler, Ford and Renault-Nissan forming a collaboration, as have Honda and General Motors.

Firms such as BMW and Toyota are developing systems, while Aston Martin raced a hydrogen-powered Rapide S at the legendary Nurburgring 24-hour race in May.

But Hyundai says it is stealing a march on its rivals by becoming the first manufacturer to launch a factory-built hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, rather than the ultra low-volume prototypes seen from anyone so far.

The Korean brand will build 1000 ix35 Fuel Cell models for worldwide markets between now and 2015, before the next-generation ix35 is launched, complete with a fuel-cell version that will be produced at a rate of 10,000 per year.

“That’s a step-change because it’s a serious product,” said Hyundai’s UK boss Tony Whitehorn at an event organised by the brand last week to trumpet the progress of hydrogen.

“It’s a seminal moment, really crucial in the automotive industry. It’s a pivotal moment in the history and development of hydrogen. It’s definitely made us a market leader. This is a no-compromise car, it’s the beginning.”


Whitehorn said there is an effective and functioning collaboration to get the vehicles, infrastructure and Government support all in line, and the next stage is an education process for the general public.

“I have been around this industry for many years and everyone is always talking about fuel-cell as the future, and now it’s within reach,” he declared.

That point is backed up by Alex Stewart, associate director of low-carbon consultancy Element Energy.

“Hydrogen has a lot of unrealised potential; there was a lot of hype about 15 years ago but the vehicles weren’t ready, the infrastructure wasn’t available and there wasn’t a strong sign from Government that these things were needed, as there weren’t the likes of CO2 targets at that point,” he said. “All these things have changed since then.”

The set-up of an infrastructure will be a challenge, with estimates putting the number of refuelling stations at 65 by 2015, 300 by 2025 and 1150 by 2030.

That compares with the most recent figure of around 9000 petrol stations in the UK.

Emma Guthrie, business development manager for industrial gas and equipment expert Air Products, predicted that the initial 65 hydrogen refuelling stations will be collected in corridors or regions, such as the M4 or M1, to enable city-to-city travel.

“We’re very close. 2015 will be a pivotal year. The level of action is ramping up,” she said.

The infrastructure debate has been moved on by both Morrisons and Sainsbury’s joining the UK H2 Mobility programme, a group of interested parties that includes three Government departments, carmakers Daimler, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, and several other parties across areas such as research and refuelling.

“It shows there is intent to get onto forecourts, not just stand-alone sites,” Guthrie said.

Alongside the availability, fuel price is vital to hydrogen’s success. Dr Graham Cooley, boss of hydrogen power and refuelling station expert ITM Power, said the price had to get to £8 per kilogramme of hydrogen to even be comparable, let alone offering the cost advantage that a new fuel would require to help get it established.

He pointed to the German model, where the government has capped prices at ?10 per kilogramme, although price parity is unlikely to be enough to convince fleets to change

to an unknown power source.

The other huge challenge is the cost of the vehicles themselves. Hyundai so far refuses to put a value on what it will be charging, but admits it is both more than it would want, and that it won’t be making money on them while the technology becomes established.

“The vehicle is more expensive than we would like as a commercial offering,” admitted Hyundai’s ix35 fuel-cell product manager Robin Haynes.

“There’s no profit margin in it at this time and we understand the price we have to pay to put it out there.”

Question marks

So the elements appear to be falling into place for hydrogen to have a shot at establishing itself, but there are still plenty of question marks, unknowns and difficulties to solve.

“There are challenges to overcome – the vehicles will cost more than conventional ones, and we need early adopters, fleets etc, to be forward-thinkers. We need the Government to support it,” concluded Element Energy’s Stewart. “We have already done focus groups with fleets and they showed strong intent as long as their cost requirements will be met.”