How the fuels of the future will find their rightful places

As Kia demonstrates its hydrogen fuel cell SUV, Sean O'Grady explains that each class of vehicle, from city car to long-distance lorry, could be powered by a different fuel
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hydrogen fuel cell cars, despite the vast weight of technology sitting in their boots, are remarkably unremarkable to drive compared to other electric powered cars. Instead of getting their power from batteries charged up by plugging the car into the mains – as with the G-Wiz, say, or a milk float or the forthcoming Nissan Leaf – the electricity is generated on the move from a chemical reaction in the aforementioned "fuel cell". This takes hydrogen from a pressurised tank in the car, adds air scooped in from the atmosphere and creates electrical energy and some water. So there is no pollution at the point of use, all that comes out of the tailpipe is water. I was once at a PR event where a spirited Mercedes-Benz staffer actually sipped the liquid emerging from the back of an experimental A-Class hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. It may not have been particularly wise, but it was impressive, and unforgettable.

In the case of the prototype hydrogen fuel cell version of the Kia Borrego I drove briefly at Kia's research and development centre in Korea, it was business as usual for such advanced vehicles. It is silent, but accelerates, like most electric machines, with plenty of low down punch, even though this big SUV must weigh the best part of several tons. The Borrego, by the way, is a brutal SUV of epic proportions that won't be coming to the UK. Well, not soon at any rate.

The reason why Kia chose the Borrego for a prototype is simple: it's big. Hydrogen fuel cells and the tanks they need to supply them take up an awful lot of room, so the bigger the car, the more suitable it is as a guinea pig. The Borrego fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) still has room for five and a useable boot, and its performance and practicality has been compromised less than it would be in a VW Golf-sized model.

Kia, now in close commercial partnership with Hyundai, is typically and proudly Korean in that it has insisted on developing its hydrogen fuel cell technology by itself, and has not sought to co-operate with other makers to develop what is an expensive technology. Still, they are not alone; Mercedes, Renault, General Motors and Honda have all toyed with idea, and Honda has taken it so far as to put their rather handsome FCX Clarity into production, though on a very limited basis. The point here is that hydrogen fuel cell technology is practical, though expensive and not without bugbears. It is a gas that doesn't cope will with very low temperatures, for example, and the fuel cell itself may not have the same durability as the good old internal combustion engine.

The car is certainly practical. Kia says its develops 154hp, which is rather less than the usual petrol or diesel units might, but adequate for a 100mph top speed and a 426 mile range. A 202-litre hydrogen storage tank is located underneath the vehicle and ahead of the rear wheels, and the electric motor is where the engine usually is. Lightweight aluminium components grant the Borrego FCEV a power-to-weight ratio that is similar to the new production model SUV, though this adds to the expense.

For those worried about safety, the Kia also stands up to the usual crash tests, but user resistance on this score ought not to be underestimated. If there is a choice between a hydrogen fuel cell car and one using a more conventional fuel, the perception goes, why not go for the "safer" option?

The real issues with hydrogen fuel celled cars are not whether they work – they do – but whether the fuel delivery infrastructure can ever be made viable. It presents an awesome obstacle. The wholesale conversion of the West's current system for delivering fuel would be absurdly costly, and require a vast public subsidy; one unlikely to be forthcoming as governments try to tame their prodigious overspending and spiralling defects. If there is no refuelling network, then car buyers cannot be expected to take on such novel technology, but if there are no hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road, then the energy and oil companies won't see any point in investing in a hydrogen delivery network.

The second bugbear is more purely environmental. Although sizeable quantities of hydrogen are produced as a by-product of producing chlorine, most of the additional hydrogen output would have to be specifically generated for automotive purposes. Unfortunately, getting hydrogen out of water is a costly proposal in terms of energy and cash.

Then there is the problem of transporting the hydrogen to forecourt fuel pumps. This can be done either by tanker or by pumping it through a pipe network, but both of these are potentially troublesome and energy hungry. The alternative is to produce the hydrogen locally, either at the fuel station or, just possibly, at home. However, the obvious objection to this is that the process would inevitably be less efficient than large scale industrial production. There are lots of trade-offs, but the fundamental problem remains; creating and moving hydrogen can be energy intensive, and remove much, if not all, of its green advantages.

Things are very much improved if the hydrogen is produced with energy derived from solar or renewable sources (arguably including nuclear power), but there remains the big question about whether producing this clean fuel is much of an improvement on the direct production of electricity and its application to conventional electric cars. After all, electricity is available to every home in the land, quite a few public car parks, and the government's programme for electrification of the national car fleet is adding thousands of charging points all the time, Oxford and Leicester being the latest pioneering cities. Once the problem of how people in homes without their own driveways, especially flat-dwellers, can run a flex from their mains to their electric car has been solved, the wave of support for electric cars will be unstoppable.

Or will it? It may be that the world reverts to the sort of "let a thousand flowers bloom" atmosphere that prevailed at the dawn of motoring. Difficult as it may be to believe now, but over a hundred years ago the steam car and early electric vehicles were serious contenders to take over the role that had been filled by the horse since the beginning of civilisation. Even now, enthusiasts are still keeping their Stanley steam cars and other contraptions on the road, which is proof that economic obsolescence is not the same thing as engineering prowess or durability.

Now, again, as we approach the twilight of fossil fuels, there might be a similar blossoming of competing technologies. Electric cars seem best for city use, with their restricted range and low top speeds. Hybrids, with or without mains plug-in electric power, might be well suited to the Toyota Prius-size class they're mostly applied to now. The hydrogen fuel cell might find a home in larger transports, such as buses (here the Koreans have also been at work) and trucks, or possibly really big SUVs like the Kia Borrego.

In any case the Koreans at least seem determined to push ahead. They say "small scale" production will begin in 2012, but it might just be the start of something significant. The other thing it shows is Kia's global ambitions. Although still dominate d by Korean management and with the best part of its sales and production in South Korea, Kia, like Hyundai, is increasingly a global concern, catching up with the worlds better known, older and more prestigious brands in technology and quality. Kia has plants and design facilities in the US and Europe, and has learned to tailor styling and materials, especially interior trims, to local tastes. It has come a long way. Whether Kia catches up with the likes of Volkswagen or Ford before the Chinese brands catch up with Kia is a different matter.

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