Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are some of the most interesting — and most green — vehicles you can buy today. They take in hydrogen as fuel (which can be created with clean energy like wind, solar, and nuclear) with only water trickling out the exhaust pipe when all is said and done.
And now there’s a new fuel cell off-roader — or at least a prototype of one. Land Rover announced this week that it’s installing a hydrogen fuel cell from its Project Zeus engineering project into a new Defender. This is particularly exciting because I drove a Land Rover Defender 110 a few weeks back and absolutely loved it.
Fuel cell cars sound like the perfect solution to our green energy woes, right? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. The vehicles remain very expensive, but the largest obstacle by far is the number of hydrogen fueling stations. Worldwide, there are just 470 stations though that’s up by 20 percent from 2018.
Japan has 113, Germany 81, and the U.S. has only 64 for the whole country (with almost all of them located in California). And the U.S. only added a single new station in 2019.
If you live in southern California, you can own a hydrogen car and use it every day. But if you live basically anywhere else in the U.S., it’s a non-starter and will continue to be until the hydrogen infrastructure is built out.
It’s like the EV public-charger chicken-and-egg problem times 1 million. Whereas electricity flows everywhere since the entire world runs on it — so it’s easy to install an EV charger wherever you might want it — hydrogen doesn’t.
Buy an electric car and you can literally fill it with “fuel” at your house. You can’t do that with a hydrogen car, so if you don’t have a hydrogen filling station nearby you’re stuck with an expensive, water-spewing paperweight.
Thanks to a whole host of companies investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cell tech, we may eventually have our long-range, easily-refueled clean energy vehicle of the future. Maybe.
BMW announced this week that it has started testing its BMW i Hydrogen NEXT vehicle in everyday conditions on European roads. In a press release, the company said the X5-based SUV is testing “how effectively the CO2-free drive train, model-specific chassis technology and vehicle electronics systems work together under real-life conditions.”
The i Hydrogen NEXT vehicle uses fuel cells from Toyota (which makes the Mirai hydrogen car) and a fuel cell stack and drive system made by BMW. In effect, the hydrogen and the fuel cell use chemical reactions to create electricity that powers an electric powertrain just like one in an EV.
The fuel cell generates an electrical output of 125 kW/170 hp, and a performance buffer battery helps with “dynamic acceleration” maneuvers and short bursts of speed for overtaking. Between the two, the system is capable of generating 275 kW or 374 hp, exactly the same as BMW’s most powerful inline six-cylinder gasoline engines.
But wait, there’s more. Hyundai announced this week that it will be entering a car using its hydrogen fuel cell system in the Pure Electric Touring Car Racing championship.
And General Motors signed an agreement with Liebherr-Aerospace to work on adapting GM’s HYDROTEC fuel cell tech to possible aviation applications. In other words, GM’s hydrogen tech might eventually power a plane.
“Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be an attractive option for sustainable drive trains,” said BMW R&D exec Frank Weber. “That is why road testing of near-standard vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell drive train is an important milestone in our research and development efforts.”
Though we’re years — or, honestly, decades — away from the widespread adoption of hydrogen vehicles, the exciting tech is actively being developed by many different companies and you can look forward to the day that you’ll (probably) eventually be driving a fuel cell car around spewing water out the tailpipe.