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Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell in B.C. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell in B.C. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Green Technology

Fuel cells have major advantages, but may be this generation's Beta? Add to ...

Hitting the road in a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, I think of Mad Max, the 1979 film in which Mel Gibson spent his days roaming through a postapocalyptic world with no gas stations.

I am in a similar position: In all of Canada, there’s only one place to fill up this car. From the outside, it looks like any other Hyundai Tucson: a pleasant, well-styled compact SUV, the kind you see at shopping malls and soccer tournaments.

Peter Cheney

But this is no ordinary machine. Beneath its skin is a power system that may represent the future of everyday transportation. The Tucson has an electric motor, but instead of a battery, its power comes from a fuel cell, a device that generates electricity from a stream of compressed hydrogen.

And I have just left the only fuel station in Canada that can fill the Tucson’s tank – a special pump outside a research facility called Powertech. This is not like the pumps at your everyday gas bar – it delivers chilled, precisely metered hydrogen at 700 BAR (about four times as much pressure as a scuba-diving tank).

Once the tank is filled, the fuel cell Hyundai drives with the typical smoothness of an electric car. But it doesn’t have the mind-bending acceleration of a Tesla Model S. This is because of two factors. First, the Tucson is designed as a moderate, family-style vehicle, not a crowd-wowing performance machine. But it’s also as a result of the way a fuel cell delivers power – it doesn’t dispense the massive, electric-chair-execution-style zap that a battery can.

Peter Cheney

But the fuel-cell powertrain also has significant advantages. A fuel cell is lighter and smaller than an equivalent battery, and can provide better range – with a full tank of hydrogen, the Hyundai covers about 430 kilometres. Then there’s the all-important matter of time – unlike a battery-powered electric car, the fuel cell Hyundai refills in about three minutes. If you can find a station, that is.

The fuel-cell car is still an experiment – there are only eight Tucsons like this one. Two are for test drives, and the other six are leased to B.C. drivers who pay $529 a month. The lease fee includes maintenance, fuel and roadside service.

The fuel-cell program is not a profit centre for Hyundai. Although Hyundai had no official numbers, one dealer said that it costs the company about $400 every time a Tucson lessee fills the car.

The Tucson is designed to showcase the technology and that costs would fall if fuel cells were produced in quantity, according to a spokesman.

“We’re starting out slowly, because we want the experience to be a positive one,” Hyundai’s Chad Heard said. “We can demonstrate the technology is ready for prime time. From our perspective, the fuel cell is a step beyond the battery. It’s about convenience. It doesn’t require a lifestyle change. You fill it up in minutes, not hours.”

Beneath the Tucson’s hood is a power plant like nothing I’ve seen before. The four-cylinder gas engine that would normally occupy the space has apparently been abducted by aliens, and replaced with their own mechanisms. I gaze upon a concatenation of mysterious plastic and metal shapes, with little clue of what they might actually be.

Peter Cheney

A swarm of hoses with complicated-looking orange plastic terminal ends snake up from the firewall to mate with an unidentifable component. The only recognizable under-hood part is the windshield-washer-fluid tank. The power package is reminiscent of a scuba diving rebreather system. If something goes wrong, I won’t be fixing it myself. Maybe CAA will arrive by flying saucer.

In the Tucson’s tail, the gas tank is gone, replaced with a bulge. This encloses the Tucson’s hydrogen tank, which is about the size of a frat-party beer keg. The tank is a spacecraft-grade component, with thick walls made of ballistic-grade carbon fibre. This is nice to know, considering that the fuel tank is filled with the same element that had once inflated the Hindenburg.

To really understand how a fuel cell works, a PhD in chemistry is an excellent start. In any event, fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity, and the only thing they emit is water. The Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts to the moon had three fuel cells aboard, which supplied electrical power and drinking water.

As I head for the Vancouver Island ferry, I keep an eye on the Tucson’s range meter, which says that I can travel 370 kilometres. It feels a bit like an Apollo mission – if I can’t get back to home base with the fuel I have aboard, I’m done.

Three days later, I’m back in Surrey. I have made it to Powertech to refill the hydrogen tank. The facility where the hydrogen is made looks like a Bond villain’s lair, with giant storage tanks and exotic-looking stainless-steel devices that resemble atomic bombs. These create hydrogen by splitting water molecules into their constituent elements, which include hydrogen.

The process requires electricity, so what is the end-to-end efficiency? Would you be further ahead if you simply poured the electric power into a battery instead of using it to create hydrogen, then using the hydrogen to generate electricity again? It seems that the answer is yes, but when it comes to large-scale power generation, storage and transfer, things are never as simple as you’d hope.

Last year, I did a long trip in a Tesla Model S, the electric car that has emerged as pre-eminent vehicle in the battery-powered electric vehicle category. Unlike the fuel cell Hyundai, the Tesla could avail itself of a power source that exists almost everywhere – the electrical outlet. Hotels charged the car while I slept. At Tesla’s dedicated charging stations (known as Superchargers) the refill time was relatively fast, but it still took many times longer than filling a gas tank.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has dismissed the fuel cell as a dead end – he calls it the “fool cell.” But a lot of major players are investing in the technology, including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes. Toyota, which has spent 23 years working on the technology, is selling the fuel-cell powered Mirai in California and New England.

Peter Cheney

The question is: Where to fill up? There are now about 20 hydrogen stations in California. There’s a handful in Canada that cater to commercial vehicles. But unlike the Powertech outlet, these are all 350-BAR pumps that can only provide low-pressure fill ups – which means the range is cut in half.

The fuel cell faces a chicken-and-egg problem: If there were more fuel stations, consumers would probably be interested in buying the cars, but without more cars, you can’t justify more stations.

But are there going to be more refuelling stations, and will buyers spurn batteries to opt for fuel cells instead?

“We’re going to know over the next five years,” said Eric Denhoff, president of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “This is a solution that works.”

Denhoff compared the battle between batteries and fuel cells with the technology wars that were once waged over television recording formats. “What’s happening right now is great for the consumer,” he said. “Incredible technologies are being tested. You’ve got batteries and you’ve got fuel cells. One of them will be VHS, and one will be Beta. We’ll see.”

Peter Cheney

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