Hydrogen fuel cell cars: everything you need to know
You might have heard people talking about hydrogen or fuel cell cars, and wondered what they are, if you should buy one, and if you can buy one.
In practice, however, there is, as there are just 12 refuelling stations in the UK. This in spite of words from government ministers and the best efforts of companies such as ITM, which has recently teamed up with Shell to build electrolysing plants to supply renewable hydrogen filling stations. While many European governments have zero-rated hydrogen fuel for cars, our government hasn't.
There are other issues with batteries and the motors that drive the cars, too. As well as lithium, batteries and electric motors are full of rare minerals and rare earth metals. Take cobalt for example, which is a by-product of mining copper and nickel: a typical battery vehicle requires between 5-10kgs of it. Over 60% of the world's cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is rife and environmental controls are minimal. As a result of cobalt's scarcity, prices have tripled in the last two years, from about £18,250 to more than £61,000 per ton.
There's also the problem of what to do with the batteries at the end of their lives. Some can have a second life as buffers for solar and wind-generated electricity, but eventually they all get buried in the ground to avoid short-circuit fires.
The ethics and sustainability of lithium-ion batteries (which are used in EVs) is also beginning to worry car makers, who are looking at the full eco and ethical implications of alternative powertrains.
By contrast, fuel cells are recyclable using known technology, as they use a platinum catalyst, which is more widely available as it used in conventional exhaust catalysts.
Ford and General Motors took over leadership in the field, until the Japanese and South Koreans got involved. With few oil reserves of their own, the Far Eastern economies have identified fuel cells as viable future technology, and now Toyota and Hyundai have fuel cell vehicles you can lease or, in the case of Hyundai's Nexo, purchase outright. In the next few years, however, we are expecting to see fuel cell vehicles on sale from Mercedes-Benz, Honda and General Motors.
Working out relative running costs depends on what you are paying for fuel. In the UK, hydrogen costs about £12 per kg, which means a 62-mile (100km) journey in the Hyundai Nexo for example (which does 0.95kg/100km), will cost about £11.40. In Norway, where renewable hydrogen is untaxed and costs 8.99 krone (84p) per kg, the same 62-mile journey will cost just 80p.
By contrast, if you recharge an EV (which does 14.3kWh per 100km) via a wall box using a household rate of about 16p per kWh, that same journey will cost about £2.28.
An equivalent diesel-powered car (doing 4.4-litres/100km) would cost around £5.81 for a 100km journey (diesel at £1.32 a litre), with a petrol-powered car (5.6-litres/100km) costing around £7.11 for that 100km (petrol at £1.27 a litre).