Hydrogen: turning star fuel into car fuel

Car makers are proclaiming a hydrogen revolution, but will it reach these shores?

It may have been created in the Big Bang, but hydrogen could turn out to be a damp squib

It may have been created in the Big Bang, but hydrogen could turn out to be a damp squib

 

Roughly 15 billion years ago, someone or something created an awful lot of hydrogen. In fact, in the Big Bang, very little other than hydrogen was created – most of the other elements had to be forged, literally, in the hearts of dying stars; stars made when clouds of that self-same hydrogen began fusing to liberate incalculable amounts of energy.

Hydrogen has long since been thought of as something of a magic bullet when it comes to energy. It is, by a heck of a long stroke, the most abundant element not only on this planet but in the entire universe. It’s everywhere, chemically combining and mixing with other elements with the insouciant ease of the perfect dinner party guest. If you can liberate it from its chemical bonds, it burns beautifully as a gas or a liquid and causes no harmful emissions as it does so.

Equally, as a gas, it can be chemically recombined with oxygen scavenged from the air and turned back into water (two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen – H2O), generating as it does so a small electrical current. Make that process happen in a fuel cell, tap the current and you can turn an electric motor and drive a car.

Thus the element born at the creation of the universe, which causes the sun to shine, can also propel you to the shops and back.

Standing joke

internal combustion

Perhaps not any more, though. Toyota and Hyundai have this year launched hydrogen fuel cell cars to the actual public for actual sale. Only in limited numbers thus far, though, and with their high-tech powertrains needing significant subvention by their makers to make the cars even vaguely affordable, but they are at last here.

Well, not specifically here. Hydrogen cars are, logically, only on sale in markets where there is a significant number of hydrogen refuelling stations. That means, for now, that they are restricted to, mostly, California, Japan and parts of Germany.

Although hydrogen can be compressed (when sufficiently chilled) to a liquid and transported like conventional petrol, it requires significant investment to set filling stations up for H-pumps, and none so far exist in Ireland.

Will they ever?

“The appetite for hydrogen cars will be high amongst Irish consumers once the costs of the actual car come down as they will surely do over the next few years as production numbers increase,” says Stephen Gleeson, MD of Hyundai Ireland, which has just launched a fuel-cell version of the ix35 SUV in Europe.

Great advantage

“We have not had any discussions at Government level in Ireland yet, but when the production becomes high-volume it is something we would look at doing.”

So, it’s the old chicken and egg debate: we’ll get hydrogen cars when someone installs hydrogen pumps. But someone will only install hydrogen pumps when . . . You get the idea. It would seem logical then that we should turn to the Government, asking it to kick-start hydrogen infrastructure investment with grants, preferential loans and R&D support. Is that happening?

“We have had no discussions with government,” Ian Corbett, marketing manager for Toyota Ireland, told The Irish Times. “But we have put out informal invitations to political representatives and Dublin City Council to go to drive the fuel cell Mirai (Toyota’s first publicly sold fuel cell car) in Europe but nothing is confirmed as yet. We have had no discussion with fuel suppliers either.

“Toyota Motor Europe is focused on countries which have committed to investing in fuel cell, so it’s Germany, the UK and Denmark in the initial launch with more countries planned for 2017. For the immediate future there are no plans for Ireland.”

So, we’re missing out. Again. A lack of investment, a lack of foresight and once again Ireland is left behind by the rest of the world. It happened with broadband, it happened with equality legislation and it took us years to catch up with both. Now it’s happening with hydrogen cars. Wait, though. This could actually be a blessing in disguise. Enda Buckley is a co-ordinator with the Irish Environmental Network (IEN), an umbrella organisation representing 34 different Irish environmental campaigning organisations and NGOs. He thinks we could actually be well out of the whole hydrogen debate.

Technological hurdles

“The biggest thing is where you get the hydrogen from, though. The production of ‘green’ hydrogen still has a massive question mark over it. Most commercial hydrogen is still coming from refineries – it’s a byproduct of the fossil fuel refining industry, and there seems to be no interest really in looking at producing truly green hydrogen.”

In fact, Buckley thinks we’re much better off sticking with our recent drive for electric vehicles.

“The way electric vehicles [EVs] are going, most journeys in Ireland can now be done with one charge-up stop on the way. Dublin to Cork, for instance, is one stop, and the way batteries are improving, I can see that being non-stop by EV pretty soon. The big problem for hydrogen is that it currently takes four times the amount of energy to run a fuel cell as it does a battery, so while that’s not to say things won’t change, it does mean that hydrogen has a big fight on its hands right now. ”

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Elon Musk. The man behind all-electric Tesla Motors would, you would assume, have some massive axe to grind but he’s about as far-seeing a visionary as the motor industry has right now. His verdict on hydrogen cars? “They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. Success is simply not possible.”

Not so much Big Bang as damp squib, then.

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