Over the past few years, the question of hydrogen power has never been far from motor manufacturers’ lips.
And it has been given a boost in the wake of the Government’s professed aim — now looking increasingly challenging — of banning the sale of all new pure petrol and diesel cars from 2030.
For while electric cars charged from batteries remain the biggest automotive growth area, some experts believe hydrogen gas is the real longer-term solution to environmentally friendly car travel.
Munich marvel: BMW has just started production of its iX5 Hydrogen that uses zero-emission fuel cell technology
This is despite the huge shadow that has loomed since the disaster on May 6, 1937, of the Hindenburg airship which used the lighter-than-air gas for lift, but which exploded in a fireball on landing at Lakehurst airfield, New Jersey, in the U. S.
Yet hydrogen’s supporters insist it is no more dangerous than petrol.
How it works
With fast refuelling taking just seconds, there are two ways to use tankfuls of hydrogen to power vehicles.
The first is to burn the hydrogen gas in a converted internal combustion engine — and I have driven a prototype hydrogen BMW 7-series limousine around Berlin that did just that.
The other, in which Korea’s Hyundai has been a practical pioneer, is to use fuel-cell technology in which the gas is used in a chemical reaction to generate electricity, which in turn powers a motor.
Fuel cells simply act as a mini onboard power station. Hydrogen stored in a high-pressure fuel tank is used in a chemical reaction called reverse electrolysis, that takes place at a micro-thin membrane inside the compact fuel cell.
The membrane acts as a catalyst for a reaction between the hydrogen (H) fuel and oxygen (O) sucked in from the air. This generates electricity, which drives the electric motors and charges the battery.
The only other by-product from the chemical reaction — as you may recall from school chemistry lessons — is H2O, otherwise known as water, which dribbles out of the exhaust pipe and is so pure you can drink it.
Five more green machines
Earlier this month, Germany’s BMW and Japan’s Toyota both announced significant steps towards hydrogen.
Toyota’s global president Akio Toyoda, great-grandson of the company’s founder, this week even questioned whether electric cars alone can plug the gap left by the petrol and diesel ban.
Toyota already has the pure electric bZ4X but, famed more for its hybrids, it is not yet planning a full transition to pure electric but exploring other options, including hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Toyoda said: ‘Because the right answer is still unclear, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one option.’
A ‘silent majority’ within the motor industry were sceptical about over reliance on batteries, he said.
Toyota already produces the hydrogen fuel-powered Mirai passenger car.
This month, the company announced it is to develop in the UK a hydrogen fuel-cell version of its Hilux pick-up truck.
Small-scale production of the model is taking place out of Toyota’s Burnaston factory in Derbyshire, which builds the Corolla in both hatchback and estate form.
Toyota also unveiled the Corolla Cross H2 SUV prototype, designed to burn hydrogen as a fuel in an adapted combustion engine, while still producing zero emissions.
It is powered by a 1.6-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged engine ‘re-engineered’ with high-pressure hydrogen direct injection technology. Akio Toyoda has even test-driven a motorsport version.
The company noted: ‘Toyota firmly believes it is too early to focus on a single zero-emission solution and is, therefore, concurrently developing hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technology alongside battery electric technology.’
BMW on board
BMW has just started production of its iX5 Hydrogen model — their first ever sports activity vehicle to feature this technology.
BMW development director Frank Weber said: ‘Hydrogen is a versatile energy source that has a key role to play as we progress towards climate neutrality.’
He noted: ‘Fuel cells don’t require any critical raw materials such as cobalt, lithium or nickel, either.’
BMW is also hedging its bets to strengthen its ‘geopolitical resilience’ should there be shortages or massive price hikes for key EV components.
Other hydrogen fuel-cell projects include Honda’s Clarity, a prototype Land Rover Defender, and work by Stellantis covering the Vauxhall, Peugeot and Citroen brands. British start-up Riversimple uses hydrogen power and Mercedes Benz is exploring the fuel.
Not everyone is totally convinced, however. A new report published last week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee says: ‘Hydrogen is not a panacea for reaching the Net Zero emissions reductions by 2050.’
But it can grow to become ‘a big niche’ fuel. Even the aviation industry is looking at using hydrogen fuel-cell technology to power future aeroplanes.
So perhaps even Santa will be able to give the reindeer a rest one day.
Citroen’s e-C4 is an electric hero
Order books have opened for the new battery-powered Citroen e-C4 X Electric, with prices starting at a shade under £32,000.
Powered by a 100kW electric motor paired with a 50kWh battery pack, the first pure electric Citroen passenger car to be sold in the UK comes in three trim levels and offers up to 222 miles of range from a single charge.
Citroen’s new e-C4 X Electric costs from around £32,000 and offers up to 222 miles of range from a single charge
Combining fastback looks with a higher ride height, crossover SUV styling and comfort suspension, it comes as standard with a 7.4kW onboard charger which, from a 7kW domestic wall-box, will take about 7.5 hours to charge.
Charging to 80 per cent from a 100kW rapid charger takes about 30 minutes.
Entry-level ‘Sense’ models cost from £31,995 and come as standard with 18in alloy wheels, keyless entry and start, a 10 in touchscreen and a host of features including active safety brake and driver attention alert.
Mid-range ‘Shine’ models from £34,495 feature Citroen’s new generation infotainment and navigation system with integrated natural voice commands.
Top-of-the-range ‘Shine Plus’ adds heated seats and adaptive cruise control.
First customer deliveries arrive in spring 2023.
A Bentley to fit under your Christmas Tree
It’s Christmas but you just missed out on that dream present you’d been promising yourself — the limited edition £1.8 million Bentley Bacalar luxury supercar.
And given the cost-of-living crisis and soaring energy prices, even the £220,000 six-litre, 650bhp Bentley Continental GT Speed — rest to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds up to a top speed of 208 mph — might seem a tad indulgent.
Small is beautiful: Bentley has produced 1:43 scale models of both the Bentley Continental GT Speed and Bacalar in exquisite detail and striking colours
But all is not lost. For a mere fraction of those prices, you can still own a brand new Bentley and give it pride of place — though on your mantelpiece rather than in your garage.
For £100 a pop, the Crewe-based British luxury carmaker has produced 1:43 scale models of both the Bentley Continental GT Speed and Bacalar in exquisite detail and striking colours.
They are available from the Bentley Motors shop (shop.bentleymotors.com) and the firm notes: ‘Priced at £100, they represent a significant saving on the real car.’
Should you plump for the pair, there is complimentary shipping on UK orders over £200.
More details at: bentleymotors.com.