This year Hyundai will be launching the ix35 hydrogen fuel-cell car onto the market. The launch will take place in London in autumn. Now Hyundai aren’t really noted for being ahead of the game when it comes to new car technology, but the Korean company is claiming that this will be the world’s first series production car released that will be powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell.

So what is a hydrogen fuel cell powered car you might well ask and where does it fit into the great green scheme of things? It’s a good question, with electric cars breaking records (for speed rather than sales) these days and still being heralded as the “next big thing” surely this will just complicate the matter?

hyundai hydrogen fuel-cell ix35

Hydrogen powers space rockets, that’s the first thing you need to know, so we know that it works well as an energy source. Two years ago at the World Hydrogen Energy Conference (yes, there is one), Hyundai was one of several manufacturers that confirmed their interest in fuel cell automotive technology. Interestingly, Nissan and Ford had already cancelled their research into hydrogen as a power source in 2008/9, but interest is building once more.

Hyundai are on a seemingly smooth running course, having introduced the Blue Square fuel-cell electric vehicle in 2011 along with an announcement that it intended to be selling FCEVs by 2014. So far so good then.

Honda introduced the FCX Clarity way back in 2008 to huge media interest, but fuel-cells are relatively expensive to make and an individual Honda Clarity was estimated in 2009 to cost around $300,000 (nearly £200,000) to build. Part of the high cost can be attributed to the need for rare substances like platinum as a catalyst in the build process.

But more recently in 2010 a nickel-tin ‘nanometal’ catalyst was undergoing testing to lower the overall cost of manufacture. As with the technology inside the engines in it’s main rival, the electric car, hydrogen fuel-cell technology is travelling at pace.

Hydrogen fuel-cell power works – simply put – by using a mix of hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity which is then used to power the car. So we’re not that far away from the electric car technology we know already, it’s essentially just a different method of achieving the same thing.

Apart from cost, the other issue widely reported is that of fuel-cell efficiency problems when the temperature drops to below freezing. The problem to get round is not the actual running of a hydrogen fuel-cell car in cold weather, as heat-energy is generated by the process of the engine running, but being able to actually start a frozen fuel-cell powered engine in the first place.

Of course this is all good progress, but there are major hurdles that still need to be leapt before we can start to think of this as a contender. In America, it has been estimated that creating the infrastructure (refuelling stations etc) to sustain hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars en masse would cost around 20 billion dollars.

hyundai hydrogen fuel-cell ix35 rear

This is starting to remind me of LPG. Liquid Petroleum Gas powered vehicles (with a bomb-proof donut shaped fuel container added to the car by approved, registered fitters) were hailed as the next big thing a good few years ago. With various tax concessions to encourage people to subscribe, it all seemed like a great idea. Until you started to look into where your nearest LPG station was and how much fuel (and time) it would cost you to get there and back. Luckily LPG vehicles were bi-fuel, just a flick of a switch would swap your engine grunt from LPG to more familiar fuel. Which was just as well obviously.

Currently, the rarity of hydrogen refuelling stations makes LPG stations look almost as common as the current trend for off-white, ivory coloured minis on our roads. In fact, right now there is only one (yes, just one!) hydrogen station in the whole of the UK at Heathrow Airport. I don’t fancy that queue much. By 2015 it is planned that there will 65 nationwide. Still not an awful lot.

Hyundai will initially launch just a few hydrogen fuel cell ix35 cars this autumn, and then only on special lease deals (probably available at Heathrow I’d wager). It’s a start though and they say they fully intend to have about 1000 ix35 cars available by 2015.

Rumour is putting the cost at around £70,000, which while expensive (this is new technology after all) it’s not totally out of reach. One would expect the price to steadily decrease over time. Watch this space.

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