Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells will challenge the dominance of petrol and diesel cars in Britain in the near future, according to a Loughborough University researcher.
Michael Whiteley, who is three years into a four year project on hydrogen fuel cell technology, says the Government is encouraging competition with Asia, Japan and America where the cars are starting to take off.
South Korea’s Hyundai have become the first manufacturer to release a mass-produced fuel cell car, the ix35 FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle), which has just gone on sale in America, and Toyota will be selling their version in the UK next year.
Michael - a student in Loughborough's Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering and a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Doctoral Training Centre for Hydrogen Fuel Cells and their Applications - is researching fuel cell degradation and has just secured funding to build what is thought to be the only test rig of its kind in the UK.
He said: “I think they are bound to take off. There is a lot of money being invested in this area by Research Councils UK.
“Fifty PhD students have been funded in the last four years through the Doctoral Training Centre in fuel cells between Loughborough, Nottingham and Birmingham universities.
“A further fifty PhD students will be funded over the next four years in a new DTC that includes two universities in London.
“The UK has been selected by Toyota as a promising country in which to launch their fuel cell car next year.
“It’s doubtful that anything will take over completely from the internal combustion engine because we are not suddenly going to run out of oil, it will be a gradual process.
“But there is a place for the hydrogen fuel cell car. They have significant advantages over traditional cars.
Michael has test-driven the ix35, and his review is in this month’s edition of EVO Car magazine and on the app http://evoapp.co.uk/1vuFRQK.
He says that hydrogen fuel cell cars have all the advantages of cars powered by batteries and the internal combustion engine, but none of the disadvantages. However, they do tend to be rather expensive at the present time, so much of the research work is aimed at cost reduction.
The fuel tank is filled with hydrogen instead of petrol or diesel and the fuel cell converts this to electricity, which powers the car. A fuel cell car will do about 400 miles on each tank, which (before tax) costs about £30. All that comes out of the exhaust is water.
The big problem is that there is no infrastructure for refuelling although the government has announced plans to fund 15 refuelling stations by the end of next year.
Michael says petrol stations could be adapted and even make their own hydrogen on site like in Japan. And if they use renewables to create the electricity, the hydrogen would be 100 per cent green.
He says many of the hurdles are being overcome. Fuel cells now have a longer life, are more reliable, with lifetime targets of 150,000 miles. Less platinum, which is expensive, is being used in the fuel cell, and the price of a car should come down from about £45-50,000 once they are mass produced.
Michael says hydrogen fuel cells don’t currently power sports cars, because of the size of fuel cell stack needed, but it is fine for an average family car at the moment. However, as the technology develops, power density will increase, and he sees no reason why we can’t look forward to supercar paced fuel cell vehicles in the coming years.
So how good is the ix35? “It’s like any other electric car,” said Michael, from the department of aeronautical and automotive engineering.
“There is no engine noise, it has smooth acceleration. It has decent enough poke. The power delivery is probably equivalent to the diesel model.
“Theoretically, you should have instant torque so it should be quick off the mark.
“A control system is needed to ensure that the fuel cells are operated at the best conditions, and surplus power is often provided from batteries on a temporary basis; for example during heavy acceleration.
“The power delivery feels the same as a diesel, but it’s more refined. Diesels are noisier and have particulate emissions; this is electric drive with no emissions. It’s the best of both worlds.”