Stuart Martin weighs the pros and cons surrounding hydrogen fuel cells.
Driving a truck that can refill its own windscreen washer bottle instead of needing an exhaust system is not that far away.
As vehicle manufacturers look to the future, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are one of the options being brought to the road, and numbers will grow in the next decade.
Hyundai is deep into its introduction of plug-in hybrid and petrol-electric hybrid vehicles. Having placed the petrol-electric IONIQ in government fleets in small but growing numbers, this in turn puts the vehicles into private hands within the next few years as the fleets turn them over.
The brand is aiming for the same introduction pathway to the broader market for hydrogen. Growing sales volumes improve the economies of scale, resulting in the price tags – eventually – coming down and the refuelling network for hydrogen growing to feed the demand.
Commercial vehicles will be a part of that growing demand as the fuel-cell drivetrain is even more applicable to the workhorse side of the market. The transport workhorses can take advantage of the back-to-base operation patterns of many businesses that could use hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles.
Hyundai’s manager of Future Mobility & Government Relations, Scott Nargar, believes the transport sector is an ideal operating ground for fuel-cell vehicles.
“There was an H350 concept with this Nexo drivetrain in it, it can go into anything for which there is demand for it.
“The back-to-base is a perfect example, such as for a courier or something. They come back to restock and refuel, it’s in France and the UK and it’s worked very successfully – we’re talking to Australia Post and StarTrack,” he said.
Hyundai is well-advanced in its LCV fuel-cell development, having showcased the H350 concept vehicle two years ago at the 2016 IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Hanover.
The Korean brand described it as a “powertrain study showing the potential for the company’s advanced hydrogen fuel-cell technology in the light commercial vehicle (LCV) segment”.
With no erosion of its cargo space, the H350’s 175-litre hydrogen tank sits beneath the floor and between the axles, laying claim to a four-minute refill time, a range over 400 km and capacity for between 10 and 12 cubic metres of space, or seating for 14.
Water is the only emission from the 100 kW/300 Nm silent drivetrain, which consists of the aforementioned tank holding 7.05 kg of compressed hydrogen at 700-bar, which is broken down in the fuel-cell stack and feeds the 24 kW high-voltage battery pack.
The electric power is sent through the inverter to drive the electric motor, with comparable running costs per km to equal current internal combustion options.
“We’re not paying any more per kilometre than petrol. In Australia, because of the abundance of renewables, we should be able to get it for $5 a kg. With the appropriate volumes of vehicles to use it, the volumes also create economies of scale for the components as well as the fuel,” Mr. Nargar said.
Oil companies are among a growing list of suppliers who can compete to produce and distribute hydrogen for commercial transport services.
“The best thing about having back-to-base fleets is where a car will use 5.0 kg a week if you are lucky, a bus uses 50 kg a day for 500 km, so the infrastructure investment is paid off quicker,” he adds.
Mr. Nargar said the applications for the hydrogen fuel-cell technology stretch from passenger cars through to large transport vehicles with minimal complications resulting from expanding the size of the powerplant.
“We can increase the size of the stack. In terms of an LCV, this Nexo stack would go into one, for 120 kW and 395 Nm. In buses or trucks, it would be three of these.
“The fuel cell isn’t physically connected. It’s all electric cables leading into an inverter, which then puts the power into the electric motor.
“Trains would have four or six stacks every fourth bogey. Ferries would have six, a truck would have three, a mining truck would have eight depending on the load,” Mr. Nargar said.
The debates continue on the merits of plug-in electric vehicles versus hydrogen. These relate to the infrastructure for hydrogen storage, the amount of energy used (and CO2 produced) during hydrogen production, the minerals required for battery construction and the green credentials of the power source used for both charging electric plug-in electric vehicles and creating the hydrogen.
Mr. Nargar believes the air-cleaning claim of a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain is one advantage of the fuel-cell system that has been overlooked.
“Car makers have done a pretty average job of talking about how much the car purifies the air. We need pure air to run the fuel-cell stack.
“It’s got a complex air purification system, with filters and dehumidifiers. We take 99.9 percent out of the air. It’s like a rolling purifier. A car with a stack this size will purify enough over 15,000 km for two grown adults to breathe over a year,” he said.
The Korean brand’s LCV sales with its iLoad van and iMax people mover are down significantly this year – the iLoad’s clear second place in 2017 has been retained but the opposition are gaining.
The Toyota HiAce continues its reign, but the Ford Transit Custom and VW Transporter are gaining market traction, and Renault, Mercedes-Benz and LDV are all taking growing chunks of the market.
Ongoing talk of the need to expand its line-up to include a ute in the 4×4 LCV segment and a growing light truck and prime mover range will be welcome news on the brand’s commercial side, even more so if the alternative drivetrains are an early part of the equation.
“We think the time is right, and we hope to prove the market is there for fuel cell and electric over the next couple of years. When we look at the workhorses, the couriers, the LCV and HCV, that needs to happen.
“A ute would be lovely, an electric ute would be even better…..all I can say is, watch this space. It’s one of the areas where there is a great opportunity. We’ve been number-three consistently for a couple of years now. Everyone around us has got pickups. So with a pickup we’ll see where Hyundai ends up in the near future – watch this space,” he said.
Delivering vehicles to the marketplace that are too futuristic in appearance and operation has previously scared consumers. The first Honda Insight was an odd-looking machine, and the first-generation Prius was far from smooth in its drivetrain transitions.
Concerns about longevity may also present hurdles for manufacturers, although Hyundai’s 10-year 160,000 km warranty (which may or may not make it to Australia) should allay some fears.
“Hyundai has announced there’s a 10-year warranty with 160,000 km. What it says is the company believes the technology is practical, durable and safe.
“Whoever buys it secondhand has seven years, backed up because we know the stacks can handle it. It will start at minus 30 degrees, for example,” Mr. Nargar added.
Hyundai’s partner in Hydrogen Mobility Australia, Toyota, has expanded its fuel-cell research and development to include heavy vehicles as well.
Last year Toyota undertook Project Portal, which involved adapting the fuel-cell technology from the Mirai passenger car to propel a 36-tonne semitrailer in order to study the potential of fuel-cell technology by hauling cargo between Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The truck produced more than 500 kW of power and almost 1800 Nm of torque (using two Mirai fuel-cell stacks and a 12 kWh battery) and laid claim to a 320 km driving range.
When the project was first announced, Toyota Motor North America executive vice president, Bob Carter, said Toyota believed hydrogen fuel-cell technology had tremendous potential.
“Toyota is a leader in expanding the use of versatile and scalable zero-emission technology. With Project Portal, we’re proud to help explore the societal benefits of a true zero-emission heavy-duty truck platform,” he said.
The local company continues to work with governments, industry and other key stakeholders in Australia to fast-track the development of the refuelling infrastructure required to support the widespread sale of fuel-cell vehicles.