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The new frontier of fossil fuel-free mobility

“I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel,” wrote Jules Verne in his 1874 book, The Mysterious Island. Since the invention of hydrogen fuel cell technology and its successful application to everyday passenger vehicles, the prediction of the famed French adventure novelist has become a reality, but not one that is experienced by many. While the importance of emissions-free mobility has spurred public awareness and triggered a massive increase in the sales of electric vehicles (EVs) globally, the number of hydrogen-powered cars on the streets remains low.

Matthias Gebert, Global Technical Market Manager at Solvay’s Green Hydrogen Platform, works with manufacturers from around the world to foster the development of hydrogen technologies of all sorts. So when in 2019 Hyundai announced the launch of its hydrogen-powered passenger car, Matthias decided to sign up for one. “It was a personal commitment,” he says. “I wanted to walk the talk and try out for myself life without petrol.”

Fuel cell-powered road trips

 
Fuel cell-powered road trips

So in March 2020, he sold his diesel vehicle and leased a Hyundai Nexo for him, his wife and their two kids. They have been using it ever since for their daily errands where they live in southern Germany, and have also taken it on several road trips to Switzerland, Denmark and across Germany. From this extensive experience, he has a lot to share about the realities of driving a hydrogen fuel cell car in the early 2020s.

Let’s begin with the #1 question: how to avoid running out of fuel. The availability of hydrogen fueling stations is easily accessible online, so mapping out your journey is not a problem, knowing that a full tank will last approximately 600 km (with no seasonal variation caused by outside temperatures). “And the gauge is very reliable,” adds Matthias. “It measures the pressure in the tank and tells you exactly how many more kilometers you can run.” As an illustration of this, he tells the story of their vacation in Switzerland, where they were on top of a mountain running on a low tank with no hydrogen station around, but the gauge indicated they had just enough left to reach the nearest one, and they did.

Hyundai Nexo

  

The main hurdle is the poor distribution of hydrogen stations from country to country. Central and northern Europe are already quite well equipped, with over 160 stations across Germany, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, but traveling on hydrogen anywhere else on the continent is, for the time being, extremely difficult. “Sure, the infrastructure isn’t perfect yet, but you have to start somewhere,” says Matthias. “Otherwise you’re never going to take the leap and give our kids new options.”

As for the driving experience, since a hydrogen car is powered by an electric motor (its fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity on demand), it’s “very similar to driving an EV,” observes Matthias. And just like with any other type of vehicle, the engine’s energy efficiency is correlated to the speed you drive: the more you slow down, the further a given amount of fuel will take you.

Matthias-STARBURST

 

“Sure, the infrastructure isn’t perfect yet for hydrogen fuel cell cars, but you have to start somewhere, otherwise you’re never going to take the leap and give our kids new options.”

Matthias Gebert, Global Technical Market Manager, Green Hydrogen Platform, Solvay
 

Raising awareness for hydrogen mobility

All in all, Matthias and his family are more than happy with the switch, so much so that they put stickers on their car to raise awareness among those passing by about the advantages of going for H2. For example: filling the car’s three tanks with the 6 kg of hydrogen that they can hold takes no more than 3 minutes. “Public awareness is still low, because most manufacturers have bet heavily on EVs,” explains Matthias. “If a family like ours can drive a hydrogen car today, it’s thanks to the predictive strategy of Asian car manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota.” In fact, these two companies are, at the moment, the only global brands offering hydrogen passenger cars (but BMW’s entry on the market is expected soon); therefore, production remains limited.

Given the current situation, Matthias remains something of a pioneer – he was the first person to register a hydrogen-powered vehicle in his administrative district of Schwäbisch Hall – as well as an evangelist. As such, he sometimes uses his car to visit customers: “People see it very positively; it’s a tangible manifestation that we believe in this technology,” he says.

It might still be the early days for hydrogen fuel cell cars, but Matthias feels optimistic about their future. “All the technologies are there, and people are getting on board in Asia, Europe and North America,” he continues. “Whether for passenger vehicles, trucks, or trains, the future of hydrogen is bright.”