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Floating on air: hydrogen vehicle driver ready for zero emission future

A private car hire employee details his experience with hydrogen vehicles, as high mileage and heavy-duty transport search for zero emission solutions.

Peter Joseph was one of the first drivers to take customers in a hydrogen fuelled vehicle in London.

Back in 2018, following early retirement from a career in IT and well-earned break travelling abroad, he decided to take on a new role as a driver for Green Tomato Cars.

A few weeks later, London’s self-proclaimed “green and ethical car service” received 25 Toyota Mirais as part of a five year, pan-European trial into the viability of using hydrogen as a zero emission fuel and Joseph was quick to jump at the chance to drive one – he still does so to this day.

“We all have to do our bit for the environment and the Mirai is at the forefront of that technology,” he said.

“The proposition was extremely attractive, the chance to trial this new car and the employment package with Green Tomato Cars allows me to use it for my own personal use too.

“It’s a lovely car to drive.

“Driving it feels like you’re almost floating on air as you take off as it’s so smooth and quiet – it’s really comfortable and ticks all the boxes, not just for my passengers but even my family enjoy it when I take them out.

“I get a number of passengers who specifically request to be driven in a zero emission car because they want to do their bit for the environment and the Mirai meets that need.

“Green Tomato Cars is the only private hire operator to offer a dedicated zero emission service, which is only possible thanks to the scale and range of our Mirai fleet through the ZEFER project.”

ZEFER (Zero Emission Fleet for European Rollout) aims to demonstrate viable business cases for captive fleets of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in operations which can realise value from hydrogen vehicles.

FCEVs use compressed hydrogen gas as a fuel to generate electric power via a fuel cell, producing only water from the tailpipe with no greenhouse gas emissions.

The zero emission characteristics of the FCEVs mean they are exempt from Clean Air Zone charges in London, therefore present a strong business case for fleet operators as the city focuses on reducing air pollution with the proposed expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone.

ZEFER is a €26 million project co-funded with Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) and will deploy 180 FCEVs across Paris, Brussels and London: 170 will be operated as taxi or private hire vehicles and the remaining 10 will be used by the Metropolitan Police Service as emergency response vehicles.

To date 117 of those are in operation, including an additional 25 deployed to Green Tomato Cars in November 2019, and data collected shows they have driven over 4.15 million km (May 2020) and offer 99% availability across all applications (a small amount of off road time is associated with normal taxi use for minor impacts and tyre replacements).

It is inevitable, due to the high mileage nature of the vehicles, that collisions occur, and safety is high on the agenda for all users given the reported dangers of hydrogen.

Of the incidents reported within the trial, none involved the release of hydrogen or problems with the fuel cell system.

“I’ve had no problems at all with safety and I’ve always felt safe in the two years I’ve been driving the car.

“When I first started driving the car, especially in the first six months, I had customers who knew that hydrogen was flammable and were keen to know the safety levels of the car.

“Part of my induction involved someone from Toyota talking us though their research into hydrogen and protecting the tanks to make sure everything runs above board so I’m able to reassure any passenger concerns.”

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the UK, Joseph noticed a rise in demand for private hire vehicles as commuters turned to safe transport methods that avoid potential contamination.

” At the start lockdown, I was much busier than usual because a lot of people weren’t using public transport, and I averaged over 300 km each day,” he said.

“I noticed more NHS staff were using our services and many key workers live quite a way away from London, so I covered more miles than normal.

“I had someone who works for one of our corporate clients travel from Southend to west London which is quite a long journey”.

The only caveat to covering more miles, and using hydrogen in general, is the availability of refuelling stations.

Hydrogen is being trialled as an alternative to battery electric passenger cars which can take several hours to recharge, time drivers do not have when being on the road pays the bills.

The vehicles deployed by Green Tomato Cars average 8 journeys and 170 km per day (as of December 2019), with one particular vehicle travelling over 8,400 km in a single month, which means they get through plenty of fuel.

Filling up on hydrogen can take a matter of minutes at a reported rate of around 1 kg/minute, giving comparable refuelling times to conventional petrol or diesel – the Mirai can hold up to 5 kg of hydrogen for a range of around 550 km, although one has just completed over 600 km on a single tank.

Hydrogen also has superb mass-based energy density, as it is almost three times more energy dense per kilogram than diesel (120 MJ/kg compared to 45 MJ/kg), which means larger increases in range bring only a small increase in mass.

This is key to the range dilemma, as heavy-duty cycles (high mileage on a regular basis) for battery electric vehicles would require large, heavy batteries that cause an increase in the energy use per mile.

So in order for the hydrogen vehicles at Green Tomato Cars to complete high mileage on a daily basis they require regular access to hydrogen refuelling stations, of which there are only six in operation in London, including the most recent opening at Gatwick.

The latest data collected shows a significant majority of all the hydrogen dispensed to Green Tomato Cars’ FCEVs is from two of those stations: Teddington to the west and Rainham to the east.

“You have to plan it correctly and arrange to refuel before you get too low,” Joseph explains.

“I’d like to see petrol stations incorporate hydrogen as that will make life easier for people like myself to go and top up.

“I think hydrogen can be the future as long as refuelling stations become more commonplace across the city to meet the increasing driver demands”.

More widely, there are 198 refuelling stations across Europe, with 65 of those funded by the FCH JU; the Hydrogen Mobility Europe project, also co-funded by the FCH JU, targets 49 new hydrogen refuelling station installations before 2022.

As is the typical chicken-egg paradox, vehicles require refuelling stations to be viable and vice versa, so deploying hydrogen vehicles in a network of multiple refuelling stations increases station usage, which in turn can decrease the cost of hydrogen over time and make the operational costs of FCEVs more attractive to fleet operators.

Hydrogen can become an efficient and cost-effective solution when it is in the right location with the right demand and utilisation is as high as possible, which also means looking at wider transport applications.

Nick McCarthy is a technical specialist at Cenex, a low emission transport consultancy and research organisation involved in real-world hydrogen transport trials across the UK and Europe, including ZEFER.

“Hydrogen produced in a green and sustainable way can provide emissions-free energy for all forms of transport however we are still in the early stages of this transition,” he says.

“The transport sectors with the most intensive energy use are the ones where hydrogen has the highest potential, therefore we need to identify the markets with the highest energy use and the highest level of emission restrictions to be commercially viable.

“Commercial transport – such as large vans, trucks, trains, buses, ships and aircraft – requires power for long periods of time, up to 20 hours a day.

“The amount of energy they need, the number of miles they cover, and the sheer amount of goods and people they need to transport, makes it challenging to use battery power, which makes hydrogen very attractive given its energy density and refuelling time.

“If we build the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and get serious about air quality and climate change, hydrogen-powered commercial transport could become a significant part of the world economy”.

As the technology matures, the results from the hydrogen vehicle trials across Europe highlight the positive impacts for the environment and justify the business case for large scale adoption.

Finding the right zero emission technology for the right application is essential in achieving the 2050 carbon targets and reducing transport’s environmental impact.

Hydrogen is proving itself to be a viable zero emission alternative to fossil fuels in a range of vehicle applications, and only by growing confidence in the technology can it integrate into our transportation network.