Why are we still not seeing hydrogen cars on our roads?
Hydrogen fuel cells have had a long and complex history from their initial theorisation to conception. It’s believed that the earliest hydrogen fuel cell to be invented was back in 1842 by Welsh physicist William Grove, and the technology used to maximise power generation and performance has continued to evolve. A major breakthrough occurred in the 1990s by fuel cell industry giants Ballard Power Systems, where their fuel cell stack achieved a power density of 700 watts per kilogram. This 700w/kg was enough to begin rivalling traditional petroleum-based engines from a performance perspective, before even being implemented into much larger automobiles such as buses and trams.
Since then, we’ve seen researchers and manufacturers from all over the world announcing further progress in the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology. There have been times where it looked as though hydrogen fuel cell cars would be the next big step for the automotive sector, but even now it still hasn’t materialised. With the recent global shift to becoming more environmentally-conscious and prioritising sustainable development, now would’ve been the perfect time for hydrogen fuel cell cars to become widely available for everyday use. So it’s worth asking, why are we still not seeing hydrogen fuel cars on our roads?
The Current Market
As of this article, there are only 2 hydrogen cars that you may see on the roads, however the likelihood is extremely low. These cars are the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, both of which aren’t currently available to order, with only an estimated 30 Nexos that are actually owned and being used. Essentially, they’re near impossible for the public to get a hold of, however there are plans for the hydrogen car market to ramp up over the next few years. The BMW iX5 Hydrogen is another example that isn’t too far away, planning public availability by 2030.
Further down the pipeline are many concepts from various manufacturers, perhaps existing more as a technical exhibit rather than feasible for mass production. It is likely that as the years go on we’ll see more on our roads and new models being announced, and it’s exciting to see what may be round the corner. The environmental benefits in a time where climate change and emissions are at the forefront of many minds could be hugely important for the future of not only the automotive sector, but the planet as a whole.
3… 2… 1… No Go.
Now to answer the question as to why exactly we’re still not seeing hydrogen cars on our roads. The answer consists of various challenges, each of which are accumulating to form an unfavourable situation for the manufacturers and public alike. There’s simply too much acting against hydrogen cars to make them viable for mass production.
Charging or refuelling infrastructure is a topic we’ve touched on in a recent blog, which highlighted just how important it is for electric cars. It’s the same for hydrogen cars, and it’s one of the main challenges being faced right now. There is a severe lack of infrastructure for hydrogen cars, with refuelling stations few and far between. This scarcity makes it difficult for consumers to refuel their vehicles, limiting the practicality and convenience of owning a hydrogen fuel car. Moreover, the cost of building and maintaining hydrogen refuelling stations is high, further exacerbated by the ambiguity and uncertainty around when or if hydrogen cars will become mainstream, leading to the deterrence of potential investors and slowing down the expansion of the infrastructure.
Another barrier to the adoption of hydrogen fuel cars is the high cost of production and storage. Hydrogen gas is primarily obtained through electrolysis, which requires a significant amount of energy. Currently, most hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, which defeats the purpose of reducing carbon emissions. The production of hydrogen using renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, is not yet commercially viable on a large scale. Storage and transportation of hydrogen is also very costly, with complex engineering and materials involved in keeping it contained. It can easily escape into the atmosphere due to its low volumetric energy density, as well as being highly volatile and reactive, further complicating the matters of safety during transportation.
In countries where there is strong government support, such as Japan and Germany, the adoption of hydrogen fuel cars has been more successful. These governments have provided financial incentives for purchasing hydrogen fuel cars, invested in the development of refuelling infrastructure, and set targets for reducing carbon emissions. However, in many other countries, there is a lack of supportive policies and regulations, which hampers the growth of the hydrogen fuel car market. For the UK, the government’s Hydrogen Strategy contains grounds for optimism, however it does still recognise the scale of the challenge for getting hydrogen cars commercially available.
Are EVs Playing A Part?
When considering the future of hydrogen fuel cars, it is important to compare them with other alternative fuel vehicles, such as electric cars and hybrids. Electric cars have gained significant popularity in recent years, thanks to advancements in battery technology, greater affordability and the increasing availability of charging infrastructure. The demand has increased for EVs drastically and there’s a strong foundation for the EV market to keep growing year on year.
While hydrogen fuel cars have advantages over EVs in terms of refuelling time and the potential to store and transport hydrogen more efficiently, there’s no doubt that the demand for EVs in recent years has had an impact on hydrogen car availability. There’s been a sudden demand placed on manufacturers, where they’re having to shift huge volumes of resources into EV production, potentially limiting their capacity for hydrogen car production.
In conclusion, while hydrogen fuel cars hold great promise as a clean and sustainable transportation solution, their presence on the road in 2023 is still limited. As the infrastructure expands, production costs decrease, and policies become more supportive, we may start to see an increase in the number of hydrogen fuel cars on our roads. It’s likely a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.
At Elmelin, we’re keeping a close eye on the hydrogen car market, feeling optimistic about where the technology can go and how it’ll support the journey to net zero. We specialise in insulation solutions for EVs and work closely with the automotive industry to keep learning and developing. If you’d like to find out more about our work, feel free to get in touch and we’d be more than happy to discuss.