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Hyundai ix35 validates hydrogen theory

Elemental: Europe's network of transport hydrogen infrastructure is already sufficiently established to allow GoAuto to drive from Venice to Frankfurt without burning any fossil fuels.

1000km Euro road trip proves Hyundai Fuel Cell technology works


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3 Oct 2015


IT MAY surprise you to know that, although food has been preserved in tin cans since the late 1700s, the can opener didn't come along until nearly a century later.

Innovation and infrastructure rarely happen simultaneously and for a new idea, whether it be a way to stop your baked beans going off or saving the planet, a critical first step must be taken.

In the case of food preservation, the can came first even though no-one had an effective way of getting the stuff out again, and in the case of hydrogen as an alternative transport fuel, Hyundai is the pioneer in Australia.

The South Korean car-maker recently invested millions to bring in one of its special ix35 Fuel Cell SUVs and then more cash to commission Australia's only functioning hydrogen refuelling station.

Since the arrival of the vehicle on Australian soil, the zero-emissions vehicle has been ferrying politicians and industry figures to promote the idea of clean car energy Down Under, but while Hyundai has the infant beginnings of local infrastructure, would the idea work on a larger scale? We drove Hyundai's ix35 Fuel Cell from Venice to Frankfurt via the Alps and found that the most extraordinary thing about the little electric SUV was its spectacular normality.

Venice to Frankfurt. Distance: 1000km. Emissions: Zero OUR fleet of three Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell SUVs sat humbly in the bowels of a multi-storey car-park on the outskirts of Venice and looked fairly unspectacular if we were to be honest. Perhaps that was how Martin Klaproth felt when he discovered Uranium.

On the one hand you have a dull looking rock but on the other you have an almost boundless source of energy.

Loading up our bags we discovered the interior is a lot like the cabin of any ix35. There is space for five adults, plenty of headroom and an inch-tall step in the boot floor is the only obvious indication that something is different about this SUV.

Up front, it is the same story with the same inoffensive Hyundai interior, fittings and switchgear. You would be forgiven for passing an ix35 Fuel Cell by without a second thought such is the regularity of its package.

But like a good comedian, it is not what the fuel-cell powered vehicle does that is notable, but its delivery.

Hitting the start button fired up the various dash lights, displays, illumination and the first indication of what powers this inconspicuous vehicle.

After clicking the automatic transmission into drive, we cruised out onto the Via della Liberta in complete silence and along the first kilometres of a trip that would span three countries in as many days – all without fossil fuels.

Hopping onto the autostrada revealed the ix35's ability to cruise effortlessly and for the first chunk of our trip we completely forgot anything was different about our transport. Only when one of the other two cars pulled in front did the strange wisp of steam and spray of water from the tail pipe remind us that these cars emit only pure water.

Under the bonnet of each car lies a fuel-cell stack that takes up no more space than the ix35's range of engines and only the buffer battery, which is significantly smaller than a conventional EV's, occupying some extra space and reducing the ground clearance by a few millimetres.

At the back end, the pair of fuel tanks take up no more space than a liquid fuel tank and are extraordinarily tough following their brutal development process, which even involves being shot.

Even in the unlikely event of a leak, hydrogen is so light that it rises at a speed of around 80km/h and is significantly less hazardous than high-calorie petrol and diesel that tends to pool under the vehicle.

Sensors in the car constantly sniff for gas leaks and the containment system is compliant with even the world's strictest safety controls. At no point during our time with the ix35 Fuel Cell did we have any safety concerns.

What was troubling us though was a common cause for concern with any alternative energy vehicle. Fossil fuel infrastructure has been spreading since the adoption of petrol and diesel power more than 100 year ago, but like electric car recharging stations, hydrogen is only just finding its feet.

As the pressure gauge dipped to one bar we saw the first of our top-up stations – the H2 South Tyrol facility – which both makes and distributes hydrogen on site.

There are those that argue alternative energy is irrelevant if its production relies on non-renewables, but thanks to Europe's extensive wind, solar and HEP power grid, H2 manufactures hydrogen using electricity from renewable sources and at off-peak rates.

Our gas was both cheap and clean from water, through hydrolysis to oxidation and back to water. Australia could benefit from examples such as the South Tyrol site. In Australia we are spoiled with abundant space and sunlight, and renewable energy poses fewer challenges to our nation than many others who are already proving it works.

The process of making hydrogen from water also produces oxygen, which H2 releases to the atmosphere. Not only is the facility producing a sustainable, clean power source, it was even improving the northern Italian air quality.

We bid farewell to the centre and headed for the hills, and climbing into the mountains gave us an opportunity to appreciate the majesty of the Alps.

The sheer rock faces glowed in the late summer sun and it was comforting to imagine that the raw source of energy for our car lay in the stunning lakes and rivers, instead of many miles underground.

Time for one more top-up before tackling the steepest part of our trip and the Passo di Pennes, which would take us to above 2200 meters and on into Austria.

Unlike naturally aspirated engines, the hydrogen fuel-cell is largely unaffected by altitude and takes a bit of alpine motoring in its stride. As pre-production prototypes, one of our fleet lacked the powertrain-maps for dealing with thinner air, but two vehicles that had been prepared hauled through the winding pass with ease.

After a moment to stop at the summit, take in some bracing air (that was unspoilt by our cars) and the breathtaking scenery, we headed down the other side of the range into Austria.

The ix35 Fuel Cell does employ regenerative braking to recoup some energy and extend range but we would have liked to experience a more aggressive recovery. One of the satisfying things about driving an electric car is an almost compulsive desire to be efficient.

A blast over the mountains in something mid-engined and Italian would have us trying to use as much petrol as possible, but the Hyundai made us strive for frugality.

Despite our efforts to save fuel, another pit-stop was necessary as we rolled out of the stunning mountains and into surrounding flatter terrain.

Filling the ix35 couldn't be simpler. The re-gassing system may operate at 700 bar but it is standardised and universal no matter where you find a hydrogen station, and is every bit as straightforward as filling up with petrol. Correction – it is easier.

Flip the fuel cap and dust guard, connect the coupling, wait for the green light and hit the start button. After about three minutes your composite fuel tank is filled with 5.67kg of the universe's lightest element and you are good to go for about another 500km – provided you aren't tackling mountains.

With 100kW on tap, one of the world's first mass-produced fuel-cell vehicles isn't the fastest but neither is it the laziest and as we passed into Germany from the Austrian Alps we found a chance to stretch our legs on the Autobahn.

Even with two people and a fair payload of gear, we managed to crack a respectable 180km/h and with only expected levels of wind and tyre noise. Its electric powertrain produces no noise at speed and only the customary, satisfying whine when pulling away.

One final fill up before the big smoke and we were nearly done with our time in the ix35 Fuel Cell. At 90c per 100g, hydrogen works out at a comparable cost to conventional fuels, but we would happily pay a premium for an energy source that is so clean and compromises nothing in convenience.

As we rolled into our Frankfurt accommodation, we felt both a sense of sadness that we would have to alight our green SUVs for the last time, but also a feeling of optimism and positivity.

Do hydrogen fuel-cells work as an alternative to the internal combustion engine? Over the course of three days, we had driven 1000kms, carried luggage and people up mountain and down dale, refilled four times and never spent more than five minutes at the pump. Emphatically, we say yes.

With vital government support, the collaboration of manufacturers and an infrastructure tipping point, there is no reason that hydrogen power should be canned in Australia.

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