There are two technologies competing to replace the internal combustion engine, but it is the poultry problem all over again – the chicken and eggs. Electric cars are popular where there is a mature electric car charging infrastructure. Expensive charging infrastructure gets built where there are lots of electric cars. But at least electricity generation and distribution are mature technologies with existing networks.
Hydrogen in a way is more compelling than electric, but this involves the construction of a new poultry farm. Yet if you can get it right, you will be able to fill your car much like at a petrol station and the only by-product of a hydrogen fuel cell is water vapour. The ifs are manufacture, distribution and storage.
Enter petrochemicals giant Ineos Group, who joined forces with Hyundai Motors to bring hydrogen fuel cells into the mainstream. Hyundai has been pursuing hydrogen since 2013 and is betting on its Nexo fuel cell SUV gaining a foothold in hydrogen friendly Europe. Germany is leading the hydrogen charge in Europe, with plans to increase its hydrogen filling stations from the current 30 to over 400 in 2025. Switzerland and France are also becoming more active in this field.
Initially, Hyundai and Ineos Group will work together to explore the use of Hyundai’s fuel cell system the Grenadier, the Land Rover Defender-like SUV that Ineos plans to launch next year.
Part of what motivates Ineos is that it already produces 300 000 tons of hydrogen as a by-product of manufacturing chlorine. It has underground storage tanks and uses this hydrogen for various purposes in its refineries. Obviously, if hydrogen can be sold commercially as fuel, the value of this by-product will increase tremendously.
At the moment heavy vehicles such as trucks offer the best opportunities for hydrogen, and Hyundai plans to capture 15% of this market in Europe by 2030. The company shipped the first batch of hydrogen fuel cell trucks to Switzerland and plans to produce 1 600 units by 2025.
In this way Hyundai and Ineos are building the chicken farm in and around Germany, creating the infrastructure that is needed and putting the vehicles on the road to make the infrastructure viable.
The rapid development of new automotive technology is part of the greater drive to cleaner energy. As much as we love our ICE cars, the roar, the smell, their days are numbered. Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric and now hydrogen are the ways of the future. Whether these will develop in parallel and fill different niches in transport, or perhaps one technology eventually dominating to the detriment of the rest, the story will be a page-turner. You can keep up with it on our blog.