Hydrogen cell cars move to fast lane

Hydrogen-powered cars – frequently derided as the perpetual technology of the future – are to receive the support of ministers in an initiative, backed by industry, that aims to make the technology commercially viable by 2015.

On Wednesday, the government and 13 car and other companies – including Toyota, General Motors, Daimler and Hyundai – will unveil UK H2 Mobility, a consortium that will study the potential for hydrogen as a fuel for ultra low-carbon vehicles in the UK. By the end of this year, the group will develop an action plan to make the cars available to British consumers by the middle of the decade.

Carmakers have for years known how to build cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, but have so far failed to make them commercially viable because of the cost and scale challenges related to extracting hydrogen for fuel and building enough refuelling stations to make a business case for production.

“What this is about is creating a collaborative project that will deliver a genuine roadmap for what we think is an important technology,” Mark Prisk, minister of state for business and enterprise told the Financial Times on Tuesday. “We want to take the risk out of this technology by bringing a greater degree of certainty to the market.”

The UK project’s backers will also include the gas company Air Liquide, the utility Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), Johnson Matthey, one of the world’s biggest producers of catalytic converters used in cars, and the European technical centre of the Indian carmaker Tata Motors.

The project will significantly broaden the government’s range of bets on clean-car technologies as it seeks to meet its commitments to cut carbon emissions.

“The UK has a world-class conventional . . . industry, and as new automotive technologies come forward – whether electric or hydrogen fuel cells – I want to maintain that position,” Mr Prisk said.

The government is committing £400m during the current parliament to support low-emission cars. This includes the £5,000 plug-in car grant aimed at promoting uptake of electric and rechargeable hybrid vehicles, which will also be applicable to hydrogen fuel-cell cars. On Tuesday the Department for Transport confirmed that the grant would continue to 2015, and that a similar £8,000 benefit would be extended to battery-powered vans. The government is also supporting vehicle recharging infrastructure under its “Plugged-in Places” scheme.

“I think government realises that in the future there will be a range of technologies used to power vehicles: some cars will be battery-electric, some will be plug-in hybrid, some will be hydrogen fuel cells, and some will be hybrids with biofuels,” said Greg Archer, managing director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a public-private partnership.

Carmakers have sunk large amounts into hydrogen research programmes, with little to show for it yet in terms of cars on the road. General Motors, which owns the Vauxhall brand in the UK, says it has invested $2bn in the technology to date. It says it has a test fleet of 100 fuel cell vehicles on the road in Europe and the US which will be ready for market introduction by 2016.

Industry analysts typically describe hydrogen as the perpetual zero-emission car technology of the future because of the cost hurdles. Recently, its reputation as a leading-edge technology has been dulled by the rise of electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

However, consumers in the UK and globally have been slow to buy them because of their limited driving range and higher price. Barely 1,000 plug-in vehicles were registered in Britain last year.

The government says it is taking a long view. “The truth is that car sales of any fuel were sluggish last year,” Mr Prisk said. “I wouldn’t be surprised in this context if ultra low-emission vehicles didn’t sell as well as expected.”



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