October 2018 - The chicken and the egg

  October 2018, The chicken and the egg, SIivain Buche, JMFC

A joke: A guy walks into a petrol station after parking his fuel cell car outside, the attendant asks him “what can I do for you?” - “I just came here for a leak……”

Ok, tumbleweed galore, for the nerdiest fuel cell joke about a car whose only exhaust is water, but the most important point here is that a fuel cell car is just like a normal car, which is what most people comment on when they get to drive one – together with: When can I have one? How much is it going to cost me? And where can I refuel it? Let’s try to answer these questions:

When can you have one? Theoretically right now, with Toyota, Hyundai and Honda all having commercially available fuel cell cars on the road today and Daimler releasing their FCell GLC in November. In reality, you may have to wait a little longer depending on which market you’re in, with Toyota having a two-year wait for the Mirai in Japan.  The markets with more mature hydrogen infrastructures in California, Norway, Holland and Germany are being prioritised. The Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells business in Swindon already uses a Hyundai fuel cell car as a pool car, which can be borrowed by JM employees at the weekend; and our Program Manager in California, Anca Faur, has been lucky enough to be driving her “gorgeous” (her word!) Honda fuel cell car as her day-to-day car since February 2017 with no issues whatsoever.

How much is this going to cost? £60,000, which may sound a lot, but is competitive with the likes of Tesla, especially for what are still relatively small scale manufacturing numbers (Toyota have announced a new plant to be operational by 2020 with a capacity of 30,000 vehicles).  Furthermore, importantly, as was discussed by Toyota, the residual value of a fuel cell car will be much higher as the costs of the Pt within the stacks in the car are easily recoverable and recyclable especially when compared battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). In addition, some of these vehicles can be leased, which also makes them more accessible financially, and they are a good proposition for leasing companies thanks to their lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

Where can I refuel it? Well this gets me to the main purpose of this blog, which is to report on the opening of the 7th UK Hydrogen Refuelling Station (HRS) in Swindon, located within the entrance of the car park at the Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells manufacturing facility. This refuelling station is part of the UK Hydrogen Hub and the EU H2ME initiative. As a comparison, Germany has just opened its 50th refuelling station and is aiming for 100 in 2019!, California has 36 and Japan has 100.

BMW 5 Series GT Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Having worked in the fuel cell industry for over 20 years, it was amazing to see both the chicken and the egg in one place with 14 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) cars coming for the opening of the HRS. We also had the chance in Munich, the day prior to the Swindon HRS opening, to try the BMW 5 Series GT prototype series which forms part of the EU INSPIRE project. While not yet commercially available, this car showed everything that defines BMW, with responsive and smooth driving that was very impressive.

The refuelling station in Swindon uses an electrolyser to generate hydrogen gas on site, via a renewable energy contract, into small storage tanks. It can dispense 350 and 700 bar hydrogen depending on the vehicle’s needs (most cars operate with a 700 bar fuel tank allowing for 300 to 400 miles of operating range for a 3 to 5 minute refuelling time; some older commercial vehicles are still operating at 350 bar, effectively halving the available range). The station uses smart systems so it only generates hydrogen when the electricity grid is at its cheapest and when renewable energy is available.

Toyota Mirais lining up for refuelling in front of the Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells facility

As you can see from the number of HRSs worldwide, the chicken-and-egg conundrum is starting to be bypassed by governments going down the route of “build them and they will come” (I know, “Field of Dreams”, very appropriate). A question asked at the opening event was how many refuelling stations is enough, bearing in mind that there are just over 8,000 petrol stations in the UK. What is key is for the HRSs to operate as hubs rather than single entities and, if possible, with high usage fleets which then maximises investment (e.g. Science Museum National Collection centre, London Met Police…).

Around 65 stations (≈£100 million) should cover approximately 75% of the UK population, enabling the industry to be kick-started. The other issue to grapple with is the actual cost of hydrogen which is very dependent, in the Swindon HRS case, on the actual electricity cost.  A full tank will cost you around £50 which is competitive with petrol, but governments are still grappling with taxation models and where the taxes should be applied, at the electricity source? at the refuelling source? in order to avoid double taxation.  However, current HRS usage tends to be low and this price will go down when more people start using these stations.

Hyundai NEXO ready for refuelling at Swindon Hydrogen Refuelling Station

Finally, on this subject, I was in Denmark at the beginning of the year for the GRASSHOPPER EU funded project, talking to Energy grid suppliers from Germany, Holland and Denmark. Their view was that they had a dire need for buffer energy storage capability available within 30 seconds to handle grid peaks, and that hydrogen coming from the chemical industry (e.g. chlor-alkali) or renewables would be ideal and you could easily see how the HRSs could fit within this framework.

As for the stars of the HRS opening, we had the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai ix35 and NEXO as well as the Honda Clarity on show, and it was a joy to be able to drive them and see that they are all great cars and very enjoyable to drive too. But for me the real show of intent was Hyundai bringing their latest generation fuel cell car, the Hyundai NEXO, which is their second generation fuel cell car which uses a specific power train but more importantly now has a real premium feel which brings it into clear competition with high-end BEV SUVs.


Hyundai NEXO front cockpit and engine


As a final word to this meandering blog, it is important to note that questions on hydrogen safety were few and far between, as hydrogen is now widely accepted as being a clean fuel with no more risks than those brought by BEVs or petrol tanks. People tend to forget that it takes the same energy to move a similar mass in a similar way irrespective of the way that the energy is stored (battery, hydrogen, petrol etc.), and releasing all of that energy in a short time will always be a problem. In my mind, hydrogen is probably the safest of the three but I am biased; please look at this excellent blog from Ballard dispelling common hydrogen safety myths and this paper from Dr. Michael R. Swain which will hopefully give some clarity. The other question we got asked was which of BEV or FCEV will be the winning technology, and the answer is that both technologies are not mutually exclusive as FCEVs are actually hybrid vehicles and for small range city cars FCEVs may not make as much sense as BEVs. What we are also clearly seeing, which was not highlighted at an event focused on cars, is the advent of large transport vehicles and buses where fuel cells are making a clear headway (see Norway, France and Switzerland who are all intending to put thousands of fuel cell trucks and commercial vehicles into operation) which will help towards the overall  deployment and acceptance of fuel cells .

If you enjoyed the content of this blog, please check out the video from the opening event on the Johnson Matthey YouTube channel and also our recent involvement within the Hydrogen Council.

Silvain Buche
Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells
October 2018