A whoosh of compressed air from the fuel pump nozzle and gas starts filling up the car’s tank. But this isn’t gasoline, and the pump display is in kilos, not litres. Welcome to the world of hydrogen motoring in Aberdeen.
The city was the first in Europe and remains the only place in the UK where you can hire a hydrogen-powered car – and I have been very keen to try one.
The Co-wheels car-sharing club offers Aberdonians the chance to try out the futuristic technology in the shape of two £60,000 Toyota Mirai saloons, a model specially built by the Japanese manufacturer for hydrogen propulsion.
It’s effectively an electric car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, and when I tried the Mirai for myself this week as a guest of the club, I found it as quiet to drive as the electric Nissan Leaf and with similarly impressive rapid acceleration.
The key difference is the car’s range. While many electric cars can only manage up to about 140 miles between charges, the Mirai can take you 240 miles, and a new version out later this year will extend that to around 300.
Cruising along Aberdeen’s new bypass in the Tuesday afternoon sunshine, it took many miles to make a dent in the fuel gauge.
And when I had been far enough to be able to top up, a second major advantage over electric cars became evident when I pulled into the only working hydrogen refuelling station north of Sheffield.
The pumps at the filling station at Aberdeen City Council’s depot in Kittybrewster – the city’s other one has been out of action for months – look at first glance just like petrol or diesel ones.
But it’s only when you notice the display screen shows the fuel amount in kilos that you see this is a very different operation.
Whilst electric car drivers have to spend at least half-an-hour, if not far longer, waiting for their vehicles to be powered up, pumping hydrogen takes only three to four minutes.
The process is simple too – you’re still putting a nozzle in a tank like other drivers, with that initial whoosh of compressed air, to check for leaks, being followed by the quieter rush of hydrogen gas flowing down the pipe.
I’m also assured hydrogen is safer than petrol, with their tanks more damage resistant, and that petrol fires are much worse.
The cards seem to be stacked in hydrogen’s favour against electric with its superior range and refuelling speed. But the price on the pump is quite a surprise.
It turns out that hydrogen is currently about double the petrol-equivalent price. It costs £60 to fill up the Mirai with 5kg of the gas, which is about the same as filling a 50-litre petrol tank that would take me twice as far.
As a result. Co-wheels charges 26p a mile for the Mirais on top of their £7.25 an hour hire cost. The club’s electric car drivers only have to pay £5.65 an hour – and electricity is free.
Tony Archer, Co-wheels’ location manager Scotland, said despite the extra cost, the Mirais were still being hired around once a day, by the curious and those who fancied a “big, posh car” – its two rear seats are divided by a large arm rest.
However, he hoped the cost would come down with city council funding. Further ahead, there could be a substantial reduction in the high cost of making hydrogen if increased demand – such as from trains – spurs cheaper production by directly harnessing cheap off-peak green energy, such as from wind farms.