17/07/2013 13:15 | By Tim Pollard, managing editor, MSN Cars

Zero-emissions hydrogen fuel-cell cars on sale in 2015 - Hyundai

We drive the new hydrogen Hyundai which could revolutionise car transport

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell car in London (© Hyundai)

Hyundai is launching what it claims is the world's first series-production hydrogen fuel-cell car in London in autumn 2013 - heralding the arrival of a new clean fuel which has the potential to leapfrog existing electric cars and hybrids as the preferred miracle fuel of the future. If the small matter of refuelling at hydgrogen pumps can be ironed out, that is.

Only a handful of the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell models will be offered on special lease deals, but Hyundai claims the number will balloon to 1000 hydrogen-powered cars by 2015.

"This is the world's first series-production fuel-cell vehicle - it's not handmade, it comes down the same production line as our petrol cars," said Tony Whitehorn, the CEO of Hyundai Motor UK. "By 2015, we can be building 10,000 of the ix35 Fuel Cell car."

Hyundai is positioning itself as a leader in fuel-cell technology. It's long been seen as the holy grail of motoring: on paper, hydrogen could become one of the cleanest fuels of all, letting drivers refuel with all the convenience of a petrol pump and emitting nothing more ominous than water vapour from the exhaust pipe.

Sound too good to be true? Read on for our Q&A on 2015's potential hydrogen launch.

What sort of fuel-cell car is Hyundai launching in 2013?

The ix35 Fuel Cell car takes Hyundai's regular mid-sized crossover and whips out the petrol and diesel drivetrain and replaces it with a hydrogen fuel-cell stack under the bonnet and a pair of large hydrogen storage tanks under the boot floor. 

The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell: the composite hydrogen fuel storage tank (© Hyundai)

Is Hyundai first to launch a hydrogen fuel-cell car?

No. Various manufacturers, such as Honda, Daimler, Toyota, GM and BMW, have showcased fuel-cell tech before, but what marks Hyundai's latest arrival out from the crowd is the fact that it's not a hand-built special prototype - it rolls down the same production line as any other ix35. Hyundai, which has been developing the technology since 2001, claims it can tool up for series production very easily.

How much will a Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell cost?

The $64 million dollar question. It refuses to put any price on its hydrogen car and says early models will be leased, rather than sold. The first few hundred cars will be leased to local authorities and fleets keen to make a green statement, but MSN hears that a price around £70,000 has been mooted to business users. Early versions of any new technology will be expensive, and Hyundai predicts that by 2025 it can bring the total ownership cost down to a comparable level to today's turbodiesels. But the first few examples will have to be subsidised, by Hyundai or governments, if the scheme is to draw early take-up.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell - driven by MSN Cars (© Hyundai)

How does a hydrogen fuel-cell car work?

In place of a regular petrol or diesel engine, a fuel-cell stack is fitted under the bonnet. Here a school chemistry lesson takes place, where hydrogen and oxygen are drawn into the fuel-cell and electrons pass from an anode to a cathode via a proton exchange membrane. In doing so, they create electricity, which is used to power the car. In essence, fuel-cell cars are just fancy electric vehicles - only they use hydrogen to store the energy in huge tanks under the boot floor, rather than a battery.

Where do you fill up your hydrogen fuel-cell car?

There's the rub. At present, there is only one - one! - hydrogen refuelling station available to the public in the UK. It's at Heathrow airport and requires a PIN number and special training to use. The infrastructure is the biggest chicken-and-egg question mark over fuel-cell cars, but various government bodies are working in the background to kickstart Britain's fledgling H2 industry.

How many hydrogen refuelling stations will there be?

Nobody knows yet. However, Alex Stuart from Element Energy, a hydrogen consultancy, forecasts that there will be 65 refuelling sites in the UK by 2015, which is being touted as the year fuel-cell cars will become viable, with several models due to be launched by various manufacturers. He predicts the number will snowball to 300 refuelling stations by 2025 and 1,150 by 2030. For reference, there are around 9,000 petrol stations across Britain today. One stumbling block is price: becuase they dispense hydrogen fuel at extremely high pressure - around 700 bar - they need expensive compressors and the a single petrol station can cost £1 million to install.

A typical hydrogen refuelling pump. Not quite green or black, is it? (© Hyundai)

How do I fill up my hydrogen fuel-cell car?

This is a big advantage of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Whereas electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf take eight hours or more to charge up from a domestic plug, a fuel-cell car is refuelled in a similar way to a petrol or diesel car. Drive to your nearest H2 station, put the nozzle in the tank and three minutes later you'll have filled up. The ix35 Fuel Cell's 144-litre reinforced plastic tank is just over double the size of a conventional model's. It's positioned within the car's crumple zones and has numerous safety features to shut down the system if a leak is detected.

What's the range of a hydrogen fuel-cell car?

Hyundai claims a 404-mile range for the ix35 Fuel Cell, which is comparable to a conventionally powered model. Performance isn't quite as fast, with a top speed of 100mph, but acceleration around town has that typical electric car twang - with instant torque and a silent shove in the back.

What's the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell like to drive?

The hydrogen-powered ix35 is a cinch to drive. From the driver's seat you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference until you drive off. The cabin is perfectly conventional, apart from some new instruments, and there is no difference in interior roominess. Only the boot is marginally compromised, by the large fuel tanks which rob a couple of inches of luggage space. Snick the gearlever into D, dab the foot-operated parking brake and you creep off in typical electric car silence. Performance is brisk, refinement is sky-high and it feels well resolved. Many electric and fuel-cell cars have strange-feeling brakes, but the ix35's anchors work smoothly and with real progression. You don't use them as often as in a conventional car, since the 'engine braking' effect is strong when you back off the throttle (brake regeneration energy is harvested back into a battery as you do this). We only drove the ix35 Fuel Cell on public roads for 10 minutes, but we were impressed.

Filling up with hydrogen: an ITM Power refuelling bay. Each costs around £1m (© Hyundai)

What don't you like about the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell?

Well, that price is a huge sticking point - but any early adopters of any nascent technology pay for the privilege. Hyundai vows costs will tumble once production ramps up. Of bigger concern is the availability of refuelling infrastructure. It's all well and good being told that more sites are coming, but with only a single hydrogen pump for the whole of the UK, hydrogen is clearly an unrealistic prospect today. However, plenty of Government funds are being invested in building a viable network of refuelling stations and you can expect them to crop up around key areas, such as the capital, the M1 and M4 corridor. Once installed, it's hard to see why hydrogen couldn't become a mainstream fuel of the future.

The science of fuel-cell cars

How fuel-cell cars work (© Hyundai)

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