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Nissan X-Trail that runs on zero shame

Times Online
July 19, 2008

Nissan X-Trail that runs on zero shame

Times journalist Helen Nugent test drives the new hydrogen powered car by Nissan.

After an inauspicious start, Helen Nugent found that the hydrogen-powered Nissan offered an eerily smooth drive

To the casual observer, it looked like any other petrol-guzzling Chelsea tractor driven by a mother clogging the streets on the school run. This, though, was a 4×4 with a difference, one that even the most committed tree-hugger would be proud to drive.

It emits water from its exhaust fit for drinking and glides along in near silence. It is one of the world’s first hydrogen cars and, according to its makers, the future of motoring. It also costs half a million pounds.

“We started working on fuel-cell technology in 1996,” said Brian Johnston, the senior project engineer for electric and fuel-cell vehicles at Nissan. “In this prototype, there is a hydrogen tank under the back seat, a fuel cell under the driver’s seat and it takes 3-5 minutes to fill up. It is a reasonable fuel choice for the future.”

At present, the company’s hydrogen cars number fewer than 20 and depend on complex technology to make them roadworthy. Put simply, the Nissan X-Trail relies on hydrogen being fed through the fuel cell to produce electricity. That electricity powers a motor that drives the wheels, with the surplus charging a heavy bank of batteries used to provide extra acceleration when needed.

During testing the X-Trail reached 93mph (150km/h) and travelled for about 250 miles before needing a refill. But car manufacturers admit that much development work has to be done before fuel-cell vehicles are a common sight on the streets. Apart from the challenges of the fuel cell’s durability, radical cost reductions are crucial before mass production.

If all goes to plan, motorists seeking an emission-friendly car (which is exempt from congestion charges) will be able to buy a Nissan fuel-cell vehicle by about 2015, provided, of course, that there is somewhere to fill it up.

Very few hydrogen centres exist in Britain – there is a station in Birmingham and one in Wales – but officials insist that oil giants such as BP and Shell have the design experience and safety expertise to install hydrogen pumps on forecourts.

Nigel Brandon, energy senior research Fellow at Imperial College, London, said: “It is a matter of deciding where and when to build such an infra-structure. There is no demand in the UK at the moment because we do not have an extensive network of hydrogen vehicles. But it could be done.”

When The Times put the fuel-cell technology to the test in Kensington, West London, yesterday, Nissan ensured that the tank was full. Even the company’s highly qualified engineers, waiting nervously on the kerb, however, could not prevent a minor mishap.

Unused to an automatic vehicle, The Times got off to an inauspicious start. Once the passengers had adjusted to their whiplash, the drive was eerily smooth. With no engine to rev, the journey was unusually quiet. Casting aside unhelpful comments about the vehicle’s potential combustibility, the test drive passed off without incident and the car handled beautifully. Reassurances were given later on the robustness of the safety features.

It is estimated that filling a tank with hydrogen could cost drivers about two thirds the price of petrol. However, unless the technology is improved, some motorists may be reluctant to switch to a fuel that still, at the outset, involves the production of CO2. The current primary source of hydrogen is natural gas and renewable energy sources are expensive.

Fuelling the argument

Biodiesel This was one of the first automotive vehicle fuels and has become the fastest-growing alternative transportation fuel. It is used in conventional diesel engines

Electric Electric vehicles are compact, designed to travel at low speeds and operate with electricity that is stored in a battery that must be recharged

Hybrid electric An increasing number of passenger vehicles are available as hybrids. They do not need to be plugged in. Instead, the battery is charged by the engine while the vehicle is in use

Natural gas This is used in two forms to fuel vehicles: compressed or liquefied

Hydrogen Fuel-cell vehicles powered with hydrogen are at present prohibitively expensive but are expected to go on sale by 2015

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