February 3, 2013 8:56 pm

UK seeks hydrogen-powered car boom

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Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could account for up to half the UK car market by the middle of the century under government plans to make Britain a global leader in the technology.

The number of hydrogen-powered vehicles is projected to reach 1.6m by 2030, with a possible market share of 30-50 per cent by 2050, according to a joint government-industry report out on Monday.

Michael Fallon, the business minister, said Britain should build on its recent carmaking “renaissance” to attract investment in hydrogen vehicles, as the motor industry comes under pressure to make more environmentally friendly cars.

“We want to see world-class companies and experts in this sector established here in the UK,” he told the Financial Times. “There is no reason why we can’t lead the field in this development.”

The research, published on Monday by the UKH2Mobility consortium, is part of government efforts to draw up a “road map” for introducing hydrogen-powered vehicles and refuelling infrastructure in the UK from 2015.

Long promised as a technology that could produce the ultimate eco-car – General Motors designed a fuel-cell “Electrovan” as long ago as 1966 – the introduction of fuel-cell electric vehicles has been held back by technical challenges and the need to provide sufficient refuelling stations.

But with car manufacturers including Hyundai and Toyota now poised to produce hydrogen fuel-cell cars for sale in world markets by 2015, the government is pushing the UK’s case to become a centre for development and manufacturing.

The UKH2Mobility consortium includes the carmakers Daimler, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, and several parts suppliers and energy companies, together with the government.

The new study estimates that up to 10 per cent of UK new-car customers will be receptive to fuel-cell vehicles. But early interest will need to be converted into sales in order to build confidence. Once mass production is established and costs fall, annual sales could pass 300,000 – offering the potential for 1.6m on UK roads by 2030, the report says.

A basic initial network of 65 hydrogen refuelling stations, focused on national trunk routes and heavily populated areas, would be needed to encourage early adoption. The report envisages a British network of 1,150 refuelling stations by 2030, requiring £400m of investment.

The study says hydrogen vehicles could reduce UK annual total vehicle CO2 emissions by 3m tonnes by 2030.

Hydrogen buses operate in Japan, and prototype and demonstration vehicles are in use in a few other countries. Hydrogen refilling stations exist in Japan, Germany, Scandinavia and California as well as the UK.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are seen as a potential long-term rival to hybrid and electric vehicles in the race to find an alternative to petrol-fuelled cars. Nissan is due to start manufacturing its Leaf electric car in Sunderland this spring, raising the UK’s stake in electric motoring.

However, despite £400m government support for ultra-low-emission vehicles, including a national plug-in recharging infrastructure and a £5,000 plug-in car grant, the rate of take-up has been fairly slow.

Green way to cut energy imports

Is this new technology?

Fuel cells were invented in the early 1800s and the technology was used in the US space programme in the late 1960-70s. General Motors first showed the potential for fuel-cell cars but it took until 1993 for the technology to become viable enough for vehicle demonstrations. Hydrogen is stored in the vehicle’s tank and combined with oxygen to create power.

Does it eliminate emissions?

Although the vehicle’s only emission is water, some forms of hydrogen production generate CO2. But renewable energy can be used. Because hydrogen can be made from various sources, it offers the chance to reduce dependence on imported fuel.

What is hydrogen?

An abundant element, it can be produced via electrolysis – passing electricity through water between electrodes. It can also be extracted from renewable biogases.

Do fuel-cell vehicles need frequent refuelling?

Provided they have hydrogen in their tank, fuel-cell vehicles can travel similar distances to combustion-engine ones before refuelling.

How soon will I see a fuel-cell vehicle on the roads?

Hyundai is in negotiation with UK fleet operators to lease a fuel-cell version of its ix35 sport utility vehicle. It could happen this year.

How much will they cost?

Toyota says a price of under Y10m (£69,000) “seems attainable”.

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