Hydrogen makes electric vans feasible

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Is Hydrogen the answer for tradie cars without tailpipe emissions? The fuel could replace diesel van fleets across Europe and the UK following 2023 trials.

Start-up company First Hydrogen has received approval for fleet-wide on-road trials of its fuel-cell hydrogen vans, commencing in January 2023.

The company uses the electric-driven Man eTGE as a basis for its vans, converting each example from a battery-electric powertrain to hydrogen fuel-cell electric one using parts from Ballard Power Systems.

This boosts the eTGE’s range substantially; from the original 115km to First Hydrogen’s claimed 399-599km, this variance likely depending on conditions such as payload and speed.

First Hydrogen also cites reduced downtime as a key benefit of fuel cells, which take five minutes to fully refuel. In contrast, the battery-electric eTGE van takes 45 minutes to charge to 80 per cent at its maximum rate of 40kW.

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Such time savings are surely appealing to large fleets concerned with their logistics in a post-diesel world: sales of new petrol and diesel vans up to 3.5 tonnes will be banned from 2030 across Europe, with those over 3.5 tonnes following five years later. The knock-on is that new electric vehicles for Europe (such as the Ford E-Transit) are arriving in countries like Australia, but the time to recharge and limited driving range will not suit many fleets. Hydrogen overcomes those hurdles, but refueling stations are extremely limited here.

For now, First Hydrogen will begin trialing its hydrogen vans in Europe and the UK from January next year. Nicholas Wrigley, chairman of First Hydrogen, said: “We’re delighted with the initial performance of the First Hydrogen fuel-cell van. There’s growing pressure on the transport sector to achieve zero-emission targets, which means operators, governments and investors are eager to see the power of hydrogen mobility in action. Using donor vehicles has enabled us to bring our first demonstrator vans to market quickly.”

First Hydrogen’s success in its trials will largely hinge on the state of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. Shell recently shuttered key sites in the UK, with plans for replacements only where heavy trucks can access them. This leaves 11 hydrogen pumps in the UK, despite consistent encouragement from the government for investment in hydrogen for use in industrial vehicles.

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Nonetheless, key industry figures remain bullish about the technology in a global context.

Toyota and Hyundai recently announced that they will begin selling hydrogen models – the Mirai and Nexo, respectively – in China for the first time. Both companies also offer the models in Australia, although they are limited to fleet use where suitable recharging stations are located.

BMW is set to launch a fleet of hydrogen-powered iX5 SUVs next year, with chairman Oliver Zipse saying it will be “the hippest thing to drive” once the fuel is more scalable.

Jaguar Land Rover is also developing its own hydrogen hardware with Project Zeus, a Land Rover Defender modified to accept a hydrogen-plug-in-hybrid powertrain. This uses hydrogen to generate electricity for a conventional battery-motor set-up to remove the lag inherent in fuel-cell powertrains.

Indeed, several rivals already exist for First Hydrogen’s converted vans: Stellantis sells hydrogen variants of the mid-sized Citroën Jumpy and Opel Vivaro in mainland Europe, while Renault has announced a fuel-cell version of the Master.

Charlie Martin

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