The burning question: could hydrogen fuel really be the next big thing?

New consortium Hydrogen Mobility Ireland seeks to create a H2 refuelling network in Ireland

Is hydrogen fuel going to be the fuel of the future?   Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Is hydrogen fuel going to be the fuel of the future? Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images


If you are a betting person, then a wager on hydrogen power as a potential future fuel source for cars may just have become a better bet: China could be about to turn the world of zero-emissions motoring on its head by advocating a major move towards hydrogen power, instead of battery-electric cars.

Once we were promised that fleets of hydrogen fuel cell cars would swarm on to our roads, replacing polluting, resource-hungry internal-combustion vehicles. They would emit nothing but water, and would take the same few, brief, minutes to refuel, unlike the hours needed to be spent hanging around in service stations while a battery-powered vehicle recharged.

It never happened. The sheer expense, both of developing the vehicles and investing the necessary billions (and it would be billions) in creating a refuelling infrastructure. Added to which are doubts over hydrogen’s actual cleanliness. While it’s the most abundant element in the universe, it’s not lying around in easily extracted deposits, and in fact most commercial hydrogen is actually created as a byproduct of oil refining. Hence the rise and apparently inexorable rise of the battery electric vehicle.

Hot and heavy

That could all be about to change though, because of advice given to the Chinese government by Wan Gang. Wan was the Chinese minister of science and technology from 2007 to 2018, and it was his advice to go in hot and heavy on subsidies for electric vehicles that have driven the massive boom in the sales of such cars in China. In fact, while the Chinese car market is relatively stagnant at the moment, electric cars are still going like gangbusters there, and the country accounts for a full half of all global electric vehicle sales right now. Wan’s contribution is generally considered as a vital spark in the electric car revolution, equal even to the diesel scandal that so propelled electric cars to the fore in Europe.

Now, though, Wan is saying that we should actually be investing in hydrogen power, not rechargeable batteries. “We should look into establishing a hydrogen society” Wan told Bloomberg this week. “We need to move further toward fuel cells.”

Wan may not be the minister in post anymore, but he still has the ear of the Chinese government, and his words carry weight. The rumour now is that China will begin phasing out its battery car subsidies, but keep hydrogen power grants and tax breaks in place.

The news comes at a time when Ireland is making tentative steps in the direction for hydrogen power for cars, and more likely as a fuel source for heavy goods vehicles and buses, applications where hitherto battery power has not been able to make much inroad.

A new consortium, a mixture of Government departments and private companies, called Hydrogen Mobility Ireland has been formed with an eye to creating a H2 refuelling network in Ireland. Members of the consortium include Toyota Ireland (Toyota currently build the Mirai hydrogen car, but it’s not on sale in Ireland due to the lack of infrastructure) and Hyundai (which builds the Nexo, and ditto) alongside the likes of BOC Gases, Bord Na Móna, CIE, Bord Gáis, and the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Northern Ireland Department of Infrastructure; and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Mark Teevan, a director of Toyota Ireland, is the first chairperson of Hydrogen Mobility Ireland. He commented, “Hydrogen Mobility Ireland is addressing one of the most pressing questions of our time – how to effectively and efficiently decarbonise transport in Ireland. Climate change is now at the fore of the country’s political agenda, and we need to both increase and focus our efforts to get real traction on this. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are capable of delivering zero-emissions driving across many vehicle categories.”

Old assumptions

That consortium is expected to deliver a full report in September into how it sees a potential market for hydrogen fuel and hydrogen vehicles evolving in Ireland. Already, old assumptions are being cast aside. It was once assumed that it was necessary to scatter as many hydrogen fuelling stations around the country as possible, to convince people that they would be able to get a fill-up when needed. The problem is such a programme would be expensive and these small filling stations would not be scalable. The thinking now is to introduce larger fuelling hubs in major population centres, focusing on drawing in “captive” fleets of hydrogen vehicles, before spreading the network out to more remote areas.

The timing of the announcements in China is interesting. Within the past few weeks, Audi apparently broke ranks with the rest of the VW Group and started talking up the prospects of hydrogen fuel for cars, while the rest of the group’s brands are gearing up for a massive battery car assault. The fact that China is now about to invest heavily in hydrogen could make Audi seem prescient. Or it could be down to the fact that Wan himself is a former Audi engineer, and there’s more than a little chance that he might have tipped off his old colleagues.

The news will also be of interest to Mercedes-Benz, which has just shown off its updated GLC F-Cell hydrogen fuel plug-in hybrid. While Mercedes, in common with almost all other carmakers, is driving hard for electric power right now, it has kept its hand in hydrogen development, partially out of interest in its heavy vehicle applications, and also because as one senior Mercedes executive admitted to The Irish Times at the F-Cell’s launch: “Because it’s interesting technology and you never know what will happen.”

There are hydrogen detractors, of course. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tesla’s Elon Musk has called hydrogen power “mind-bogglingly stupid” and nicknamed fuel cells “fool cells”. Is Musk’s deprecation born out of desperation, though? Is China, not for the first time in the past decade, about to trigger a revolution in global car making, fuelling, and driving?