Hydrogen-powered vehicles are the future

UniQuad, the first NZ-manufactured hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle.

A growing passion for taking better care of the environment, plus a government push to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, has inevitably led to a renewed interest in electric vehicles and a proliferation of charging stations to power them.

But in our enthusiasm for going electric, an Omaha engineer says we are overlooking another zero-emissions technology that offers enormous advantages over battery-powered cars.

Dr Jonathan Leaver, an Associate Professor at the Unitec Institute of Technology, has been researching hydrogen-powered vehicles since 2000 and is vice chair of the International Energy Agency’s hydrogen technology collaboration programme.

He oversaw the building of UniQuad – New Zealand’s first hydrogen-powered vehicle using a fuel cell – a prototype farm utility quad bike, currently on show in a Unitec student commons area.

Dr Leaver says the reason enthusiasm for hydrogen-powered vehicles has lagged behind all electric vehicles is because of the apparently bigger costs involved.

A hydrogen refueling station can cost as much as $3 million to build, versus around $50,000 for an electric vehicle recharging station. Moreover, the cost of producing the hydrogen itself has been prohibitive.

But he says developments in technology and recent research suggest hydrogen might in fact be more economic in the long run.    

For example, the cost of upgrading the national grid to cater for the increased demand from electric vehicles has been shown to be more expensive than developing the infrastructure to deliver hydrogen.

Meanwhile, one method of producing hydrogen is via a process known as electrolysis, which requires electricity. If the cost of electricity can be brought down to less than four cents a kilowatt hour then hydrogen starts to become competitive.

Already, some countries such as Chile, are starting to come close to this using solar panels. And Dr Leaver anticipates as the price of the panels continues to drop, then electricity will become cheaper still.

Coradia iLint – the world’s first hydrogen-powered train.

Jonathan Leaver

Currently, Australia is investigating becoming a major exporter of hydrogen produced with the aid of solar panels sited in the Australian desert.

Dr Leaver thinks that if hydrogen-powered vehicles take off, there will eventually be a powerful organisation of hydrogen producing and exporting countries, like the conglomerate of oil exporting countries known as OPEC.     

Once costs become comparable, the benefits of hydrogen become clear. A hydrogen-powered vehicle typically has a range of 600km and can be recharged in about three minutes. An all-electric vehicle might easily have a range of less than 250km and take more than an hour to charge its battery. Moreover, these batteries are heavy, adding considerably to the weight of the vehicle and the energy required to move it.

Dr Leaver says these kinds of handicaps are bad enough for the private electric vehicle owner but are especially tiresome for a commercial operator with a fleet of electric trucks, who might be obliged to see his or her vehicles out of action for extended periods and their drivers twiddling their thumbs while
their vehicles recharge.

“These sorts of things add up to making hydrogen more desirable,” Dr Leaver says.

Indeed, commercial concerns are waking up to the benefits of hydrogen. Dr Leaver says the American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch recently purchased 800 hydrogen-powered trucks and the world’s first hydrogen-powered train The Coradia iLint is currently being tested on German railways and is expected to be in service later this year. It’s anticipated the train will generate zero emissions.

Unfortunately, work on UniQuad, has stalled after the original investor ran into financial difficulties.

However, Dr Leaver sees a big future for such bikes, especially on large Australian stations where the distances are huge and where hydrogen might be generated on the station via electrolysis using solar panels to provide the necessary electricity.

Despite his enthusiasm for hydrogen, Dr Leaver does not dismiss electric vehicles entirely. As a second vehicle for travelling short distances in urban areas, he thinks they are ideal. On the other hand, if the government is serious about meeting its zero emissions target by 2050 then hydrogen will be key, he says.


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