It seems like a no-brainer. An internal combustion engine burns dwindling reserves of fossil fuels to propel a car forwards in a cloud of poisonous smoke. A fuel cell, on the other hand, uses the most abundant atom in the universe to silently drive powerful electric motors. The exhaust emissions? Pure, drinkable water.
Hydrogen sounds almost too good to be true, like something out of a Sixties sci-fi paperback. But from where I’m sitting – the driver’s seat of a Toyota fuel cell vehicle, about to fill it up at a motorway fuel station – the future seems to have arrived.
I’m using the UK’s newest hydrogen pump, opened this week at Cobham services on the M25. It’s the unlikely epicentre of a green revolution. This isn’t the first hydrogen filling station in the UK, but it’s the first on a motorway, the first on a public forecourt, and the first one that might actually encourage private buyers to choose a hydrogen car.
It’s built, owned and operated by Sheffield-based energy tech company ITM Power, which has worked closely with oil giant Shell to bring the project online. This welcome addition to the M25 is ITM’s third such site, and one that the firm is clearly very proud of.
“It’s a great moment for ITM,” says CEO Dr Graham Cooley. “We’ve been planning this for a very long time.”
The hydrogen installation itself is fairly nondescript, a small cluster of machinery located a few metres to the south of Shell’s main canopy. I slip the Mirai into a parking space, marked ‘H2’, in front of the pump, unsure of how far a hydrogen hose is happy to stretch. It’s a bit reminiscent of the LPG pumps that threatened to become popular a decade ago, albeit much more slick.
A small payment machine sits adjacent to the pump. I give it my special charge card, tap my pin number into the touchscreen, and after a few moments I’m ready to refuel.
The hose itself is armoured, with quite a heavy nozzle. It has a unique unwieldiness but is easy to attach to the car, and is far cleaner than anything on the fossil fuel side of the forecourt. The interface between the car and the pump is also more intelligent than most motorists are used to – an infrared connection allows the filling station to communicate with the tank in a way that improves both safety and efficiency.
I couple the hose to the car with a satisfying squeeze of the trigger. I can then let go – it’s a closed system, for obvious reasons, and all I need to do now is press an illuminated green button. It’s exceptionally simple, and seems to solve many of the problems – dirtiness, inexactitude, spillages etc – encountered when refuelling a traditional car.
The pump automatically stops when the tank is full, which takes a couple of minutes. I’ve put in 0.7kg of hydrogen, which costs me £7. In terms of miles per pound, these figures make the Mirai broadly comparable to a similarly-sized petrol car, and hydrogen’s price at the pump is poised to plummet.
I’m delighted to have been the first to use the new facility, and excited by how user-friendly hydrogen motoring is, but the consumer interface is arguably its least interesting feature. The most important part of this installation is around the corner, behind some 10ft security fencing. Here lies the electrolyser, the machine that actually takes water and electricity to make hydrogen, and the beating heart of this environmental revolution.
“The technology we have allows us to access renewable power and generate a zero-carbon fuel,” says Dr Simon Bourne, ITM Power’s CTO.
The electrolyser here at Cobham is designed to use excess renewable energy, effectively spare electricity made by wind farms and similar, at times of day when it outstrips the country’s demand. The National Grid itself can tell the electrolyser when to activate, and the equipment can start and stop in about half a second. That means that it’s theoretically possible for the hydrogen generated here to use no fossil fuels at all, something that gives the fuel cell vehicle a considerable environmental edge over normal plug-in electric vehicles (EVs).
“What we’re doing is generating renewable hydrogen on-site,” says Bourne. “And that’s very important because while hydrogen always gives you minimal emissions when it’s used, you also need to consider the wider picture.”
So sites like Cobham can generate zero-carbon hydrogen, and fuel cell vehicles literally emit drinking water. I’m curious as to why it’s taken so long for this technology to emerge, when it clearly solves some of the world’s most deadly problems.
“There was a concerted effort to push hydrogen as a fuel, especially in California, around 10 or 15 years ago,” says Matthew Tipper, Shell’s VP of New Fuels.
“At that time, refuelling and vehicle tech was too immature to be commercially viable. What’s changed in the past 10 years is that the technology has gradually been improved.
“Installing a hydrogen pump used to require a major rebuild of the forecourt. Now it can be made off-site and delivered in a shipping container on the back of a truck as a completely functioning refuelling station. That’s made it simpler and cheaper to make this technology available.
“It’s also a question of being able to make or produce component parts using less material – the amount of platinum used as a catalyst in a fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) has decreased tenfold in the past ten years. Platinum is the most expensive part of the fuel cell.
“There’s still a journey ahead in reducing cost, but we’re in a much better place than we were 10 years ago.”
A Toyota Mirai owner in London now has a small selection of hydrogen filling stations to choose from, but that number can currently be counted on one hand. Given the immense cost of building hydrogen filling stations, and the minuscule number of fuel cell vehicles currently on the road, this technology is barely in its second trimester. There’s a degree of chicken-or-egg to it, too, as buyers are unmotivated to buy into such fledgling infrastructure.
“We really do need a sufficient number of stations available to the public before it’s reasonable to expect the public to buy significant numbers of vehicles,” says Tipper. “We’re of the view that the stations come first.”
“If we can achieve a critical number of sites and vehicles, we’ll deliver economies of scale for the industry in order to bring down cost. We’re interested in the first 1,000 stations worldwide. If the industry can achieve that number split equally over Europe, west coast US, Japan, and Korea, that will be sufficient scale to bring down cost, and for vehicle production to scale up too.
“The next 10 years is a critical period for hydrogen to deliver that cost curve.”