A deep dive on Hydrogen vehicles: is H2 the next big thing?

Jessica Satherley
A deep dive on Hydrogen vehicles: is H2 the next big thing?
Photo of the new Hyundai NEXO

Range anxiety has long been one of the pitfalls associated with electric vehicles, which has led some to predict that hydrogen cars – which can be refuelled like petrol - might be the next big thing.  

Hyundai launched their game-changing hydrogen powered NEXO SUV FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) in June at National Fieldays. 

It’s New Zealand’s first zero emissions hydrogen powered SUV.  It boasts a range of 660km and can be refueled in just six minutes. 

Not only do hydrogen vehicles have a longer range than pure EVs, they also don’t have the same issue with batteries deteriorating over time. 

One thing holding New Zealand back from a potential hydrogen boom is the current lack of infrastructure for their fueling stations. 

But Hyundai New Zealand says an infrastructure solution should be here within 12 months and Ports of Auckland has recently applied for consent to build Auckland’s first hydrogen production and refuelling facility at its Waitemata port. 

While hydrogen has many advantages, it does have its own technical challenges - which aren’t all good for the environment. 

“There are two different ways of getting pure hydrogen.  Either through reforming, where carbon is removed from methane or natural gas (CH4), or through electrolysis, where hydrogen is separated from water (H2O),” says Matt McWha, a Senior Analyst for Energy, Infrastructure and Resources within Westpac’s Institutional Bank. 

“Reforming has a carbon footprint, given carbon is emitted into the atmosphere; electrolysis can be a green solution, only if you’re using renewable electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen. 

“There is a lot of electricity used in separating the hydrogen and oxygen too, so you’re left with an energy loss that often exceeds 30%. 

“Also, hydrogen is one of the least dense forms of energy so it’s difficult to store and has a high storage cost. 

“It either has to be compressed into tanks or liquefied.  For fuel cell EVs it’s compressed into tanks made of composite materials including carbon fibre, but if you want to store it on a massive scale you may need to liquefy it which is also energy intensive,” McWha said. 

McWha believes that hydrogen-powered heavy vehicles like trucks or buses might come into use because they can carry a lot more weight than battery electric vehicles and don’t have the same range and refueling constraints, which makes them potentially economically feasible for commercial users. 

“But from a technical viability perspective, EVs will be better for passenger vehicles, in most cases,” he says. 

As well as the transport opportunities, New Zealand also has a long-term opportunity to export hydrogen as a commodity to countries like Japan. 

This is something that both Japan and New Zealand are exploring under a Memorandum of Cooperation. 

“Japan doesn’t have a lot of renewable energy for its population size, so they are looking to import energy from other countries like New Zealand,” McWha said. 

The New Zealand Government is also pushing for hydrogen in a new plan to accelerate the use of green hydrogen across the country. 

“I consider green hydrogen as one of the potential tools that will help assist us to reduce global emissions,” Energy Minister Megan Woods said to the NZ Herald

“Countries around the Asia-Pacific, Japan, and Korea are actively looking for countries to export hydrogen to them – this is potentially a whole new industry for New Zealand,” Woods said. 

Hyundai’s hydrogen SUV is marketing itself around its green capabilities and long range.   

It has an advanced air purification system which filters 99.9% of very fine dust, emitting only water and clean air into the environment. 

The car draws power from an under-bonnet fuel cell stack, which combines oxygen from the surrounding air with hydrogen from NEXO’s high-pressure storage tanks. 

“The exact date for NEXO going to market in New Zealand ultimately depends on New Zealand’s ability to provide the infrastructure for the hydrogen fuelling stations,” Hyundai NZ General Manager Andy Sinclair said. 

Other companies creating hydrogen vehicles include Toyota, Honda and Audi, while hydrogen aircraft are also being tested. 

Ports of Auckland have partnered with the Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and KiwiRail, who will all invest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, including port equipment, buses and cars. 

“We have an ambitious target to be a zero-emission port by 2040,” Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Tony Gibson said. 

“In order to meet that target we need a new renewable and resilient power source for heavy equipment like tugs and straddle carriers, which are difficult to power with batteries. 

“Hydrogen could be the solution for us as it can be produced and stored on site, allows rapid refuelling and provides greater range than batteries,” Gibson said. 

The facility constructed will produce hydrogen from tap water using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen (which is then stored for later use) and oxygen, which is released into the air. 

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said: “I welcome this trial.  It is a first for New Zealand and shows Auckland’s desire to lead of climate change action and meet our ambitious emissions reduction targets.” 

Hyundai is also launching 1,600 hydrogen trucks in Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands between 2019 and 2025. 

 

Hydrogen facts: 

  •     Hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis using on-or-off-grid electricity or by reforming.  
  •     As long as the electricity is from a renewable source, the hydrogen will have a low carbon footprint (80% of NZ’s electricity is from renewables). 
  •     Hydrogen vehicles are currently already in use in the UK, USA, Japan, Korea and Europe. 
  •     Hydrogen use isn’t restricted to vehicles – excess electricity can be converted into hydrogen, stored and then converted back to electricity when needed, but this does come with an energy loss. 
  •     Globally there are more than 200 public hydrogen stations. 
  •     56 fuel cell buses trialled for six years in Europe. 
  •     Hydrogen passenger trains are in use in Germany 
  •     South Korea is planning to replace 36,000 compressed natural gas buses with hydrogen buses by 2030. 
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