With battery electric vehicle (BEV) hype at its zenith, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the pathway to vehicle fleet electrification is closed. While most companies are following the lead established by Tesla and are powering their EVs using on-board batteries charged from an external grid, a handful are also developing fuel-cell-powered EVs that generate power directly within the vehicle – early adopters include Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. Now, Land Rover has confirmed that it will launch a fuel-cell-powered Defender prototype in 2022 to further investigate the technology.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer a number of advantages compared with battery-powered electric vehicles. Crucially, FCEVs can be rapidly refuelled with hydrogen when they deplete their on-board storage – this negates the range anxiety of battery EVs and effectively means FCEVs’ range is only limited by the refuelling infrastructure that supports them. In addition, an EV with a fuel cell is usually lighter than an equivalent EV with a battery pack – this weight saving improves driving range and eats up less of the vehicle’s maximum permissible weight, allowing for more cargo capacity. This weight saving is why the likes of Land Rover and BMW etc with mid- and full-size SUVs are exploring FCEV possibilities.

There are also drawbacks to fuel cells that will need to be addressed before they can challenge BEV dominance. Critically, the refuelling infrastructure to support FCEVs doesn’t exist yet. BEV charging networks have begun to roll out in many countries, but hydrogen refuelling stations are still extremely rare. In addition, the cost of generating hydrogen currently makes it more expensive than fossil fuels, so FCEVs do not yet represent a cost saving over combustion-powered models.

The majority of hydrogen is currently generated by cracking it out from fossil fuel hydrocarbon sources – dubbed grey hydrogen – denting its environmental credentials. This process can be somewhat improved by capturing the CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere – called blue hydrogen. Truly environmentally friendly hydrogen extracted through electrolysis of water using renewable energy is known as green hydrogen. The less-than-green credentials of most current hydrogen production methods has led VW’s Chairman Herbert Diess to doubt the viability of FCEVs for light vehicles. Diess states that even green hydrogen may prove to be too expensive and too scarce.

Despite still-unanswered questions about the long-term viability of hydrogen as a fuel, Land Rover is keeping its options open with Project Zeus – a fuel-cell powered Defender prototype. The company cited benefits of this approach including FCEVs’ greater energy density than BEV powertrains, their rapid refuelling capabilities and their minimal range loss when faced with low temperatures – something that can have a noticeable impact on the range of most battery EVs.

Land Rover is quick to point out that it sees fuel cells as “complimentary to battery electric vehicles…on the journey to net zero vehicle emissions”, indicating that the company doesn’t expect the technology to replace its battery EV strategy. However, it noted that fuel cells were “ideal” for larger, longer-range vehicles – this is thanks to the weight saving offered by a fuel cell powertrain compared with a battery-electric one, combined with the ability to refuel rapidly when needed.

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This explains why the company has decided to launch the technology in a prototype Defender rather than the smaller Evoque or an on-road-oriented Jaguar model – these models will see less of an outsized benefit from using a fuel cell rather than heavy on-board batteries compared with heavier models. Fuel-cell-powered vehicles are expected to cost more than equivalent battery EVs when they reach commercialisation, so it makes sense to apply the technology to larger, more expensive models. Prices in these segments are more elastic than smaller vehicles with tighter margins, so buyers are more likely to accept a price increase to gain fuel cell technology.

According to the UK’s non-profit Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), investment in JLR’s Project Zeus is valued at GBP17.6 million, with GBP8.7 million of that coming directly from the APC itself. The project is also supported by high-performance powertrain developer AVL and the UK’s Delta Motorsport. In addition, the technology draws on a unique cooling system and heat exchanger designed by Marelli Automotive Systems.

JLR’s decision to trial a fuel cell powertrain in one of its larger models echoes an announcement from BMW in September 2020 that it would introduce a small number of hydrogen-powered X5 SUVs in 2022. BMW’s trial models are also intended to test the viability of hydrogen as a fuel for light vehicles, and come as the result of a collaboration between BMW and Toyota first agreed in 2013. Japanese brands are the current leaders in FCEVs – Toyota has now offered two generations of the Mirai FCEV sedan for sale while Honda has previously sold versions of its FCX Clarity sedan with a hydrogen fuel cell.