The first sod has been turned in establishing Australia’s hydrogen highway and you could be driving along it sooner than you think. Hydrogen is coming up fast.
The first hydrogen-powered car I drove was a Mercedes-Benz A-class. That was in 2004 and it was insured for $5 million. Now Hyundai has a hydrogen car, an ix35 SUV, and its notional cost is about $150,000. A lot, but a lot less than $5 million.
There are 72 hydrogen pumps in California, 80 in Europe and 13 in South Korea, and now we have one too. Hyundai has one at the back of its Sydney headquarters; it cost about $300,000.
Okay, one pump doesn’t make hydrogen viable, but it’s a start. In the next five years hundreds more are expected worldwide.
Hydrogen, the most common element on the planet, is a beautiful fuel. A solar-powered hydrogen fuel station adds electricity to purified water to release the hydrogen (water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen), which then goes to the pump and into a hydrogen car, giving it a range of about 600 kilometres.
Filling the tank takes a minute or two. The car’s fuel cell combines the hydrogen with oxygen gathered from the air outside to create an electric current, driving the car’s electric motor. The only exhaust emitted is water vapour.
Did you get that? No fossil fuels anywhere. No harmful emissions. It’s water to water; water in at one end, water out at the other, 600 kilometres of driving in between – driving which, apart from being eerily quiet, is no different to how you do it today.
But how does a tankful of hydrogen react when hit by a Mack truck? The car’s tank is fabricated with aluminium alloy in a carbon composite wrap. These have been shot at, lowered into fire baths, dropped and crashed into barriers, all without incident.
Cranston Polson, managing director of H2H Energy, an Australian company advising on hydrogen systems, believes the current cost of establishing hydrogen refuelling infrastructure would be in line with the creation of mobile phone infrastructure.
So right now the costs of the car and of a refuelling network are scary. But 21st-century technology tends to get cheaper fast.
Take hybrids; Australia’s first hybrid car, the crude, two-seat Honda Insight of 2001, cost $48,900. You can now buy a practical and comfortable Prius for $26,380.
Hyundai has been playing around with hydrogen power since 1998 and this ix35 is its fourth-generation hydrogen car. Its production cost is well into six figures but the fifth-generation model, due in 2018, is strongly tipped to cost less than $100,000.
But you won’t be able to buy one. Hyundai has fleets of the current model in California, Europe and South Korea. In America they have been placed with families on lease but they’re taken back at lease’s end. Even this won’t happen here until more refuelling points are established.
The encouraging thing at the launch of the hydrogen Hyundai was the support it received from the federal government. The then minister for industry and science, Ian Macfarlane, was effusive in his praise of the company and the concept despite all the tax revenue the government collects from oil-based fuels.
The support is welcome because overseas experience suggests hydrogen pump networks may require government support to be viable.
“One of our ideas is ‘Hume by hydrogen’, to link Australia’s two largest cities via the nation’s capital,” says Charlie Kim, Hyundai Australia’s CEO.
“It would require refuelling stations in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Goulburn and Albury and could see hydrogen vehicles, including buses, running on a busy highway emitting nothing but water vapour.”