Ireland’s only hydrogen powered car takes to Mid Ulster roads - like riding on air

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Driving on a wet Friday morning, surrounded by commuting motorists crouched over their steering wheels, I listened over the patter of raindrops trying to detect the sound of the motoring future.

I’d expected a futuristic whirring like the aircraft in Blade Runner, or at least an efficient hum changing in pitch as I accelerated.

However, what I got was silence, mile after mile of maddening silence.

I was test driving a special Hyundai delivery at Saltmarine Motors, the new ix35, the only car of its type in Ireland, and it felt as if I was riding on air.

And to all intents and purposes this was what I, or at least the car, was doing.

Hydrogen, the most abundant and energy packed gas in nature, was the power source driving the 100KW (135PS) engine.

The gas is already providing a growing alternative energy source for transportation in several countries, including the US and Japan. And Hyundai is adamant that the range, usability and emissions of hydrogen fuel cells make it the long-term alternative technology for the motoring industry to pursue,

Thanks to the reassurance of the Saltmarine sales team, I had already parked my fears that I might be driving a mini-Hindenburg liable to burst into flames at the slightest collision.

A few miles down the road, and the spectre of one of the worst aviation disasters in history faded into the background. In fact, the experience of driving the car differed very little from getting behind the wheel of a standard fossil-fueled car.

From the inside and outside - aside from a slightly smaller boot which houses the fuel cells - the ix35 is completely conventional.

The only clue that the car was at the very cutting edge of technology was the blue manufacturer’s emblem on the front grille, a marker used by Hyundai to denote its fleet of ‘greener’ vehicles.

Under the skin, however, it is completely new.

The fuel, compressed hydrogen at a pressure of 700 bar, is housed in two gas cylinders in place of a conventional petrol tank – a smaller 40-litre unit in front of the rear axle and a 104-litre tank behind the rear axle.

My drive through the rolling Mid Ulster countryside, sadly limited by the fact that there were no hydrogen filling stations en route or in fact anywhere in Ireland, was dominated by silence.

Freed from the need for an internal combustion engine exploding chambers of petrol thousands of times every minute, the Hyundai’s engine sounded invisible. However, with a 0-to-62mph time of 12.5 seconds, it certainly did not feel invisible when my foot hit the accelerator pedal.

It wasn’t until exceeding 50mph, when the roar of the wind and the tyres disrupted the eerie silence, that I relaxed and began to enjoy the drive.

Hyundai says it started researching hydrogen fuel cells as a viable powertrain back in 1998 and produced the first prototype in 2001. Hyundai has built 1000 examples of this car, with more than 250 ix35s finding a home in 11 European nations. From this year, the Korean company expects to build as many as 10,000 examples per year, a hope driven by the increase of hydrogen re-fuelling stations across the globe.

However, the infrastructure limitations make it unlikely that motorists in Northern Ireland will be switching to hydrogen in the near future.

When I returned the Hyundai ix35 to the sodden showroom car park, I was bemused to learn that the sum total of the car’s emissions had amounted to a small glass of very drinkable water.

An emissions footprint that will be virtually invisible in this rain afflicted country of ours.