Another three hydrogen stations are planned for London and there will be at least twelve stations countrywide by 2010, paving the way for the commercial production of cars powered by fuel cells.
For more than a decade, the car industry has seen the fuel cell as the holy grail that will help to relieve it of its dependence on oil.
A fuel cell combines hydrogen from a tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which powers an electric motor. The only byproduct is water and the whole process can be totally without carbon dioxide emissions.
Manufacturers have displayed dozens of fuel-cell concept cars but have been reluctant to put them into mass production without an infrastructure to support them.
The first station will open at Birmingham University, which is conducting trials with a fleet of five fuel-cell vehicles.
Professor Kevin Kendall, head of the research team, said: “It is absolutely necessary that we have the means to refuel our fleet of hydrogen-powered cars so that we can carry out our research project into the feasibility of hydrogen in a transport context.”
Air Products, the company that installed the fuel station, is also working with Transport for London (TfL) to build fuel stations for a fleet of 70 hydrogen-powered vehicles being introduced from next year. Ian Williamson, of Air Products, said: “The Japanese are by far the most advanced in developing hydrogen-powered cars. The US car companies are trying to catch up.” Honda will offer the FCX Clarity from this summer, the first fuel-cell car to be produced commercially, to drivers in California. Mer-cedes plans to start mass-producing fuel-cell cars in 2014 and BMW has a test fleet of hydrogen combustion cars.
TfL’s vehicles will be a mixture of buses, vans, cars and motorcycles that will be used by TfL staff, the police and the fire brigade.
The five-year trial of both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines will cost around £22 million.
London’s first hydrogen station will open next year at a bus garage in East London.
Edmund King, the president of the AA, said: “Images of the burning Hindenburg airship could undermine confidence in carrying hydrogen tanks.”
Mr Williamson said: “Hydrogen needs to be treated with respect. It is significantly more volatile [than conventional fuel]. But the safety criteria we apply mean you end up with a very safe system.”