New generation cars – they’re a gas, gas, gas

Electric cars have got the headlines but how do hydrogen powered vehicles work and could you be driving one soon? Here’s a guide.

Image courtesy: Popular Mechanics

Key Points

  • Hydrogen is an extremely common element and can be made by running electricity through water
  • Depending on how the electricity is produced hydrogen power has negligible carbon emissions
  • Hydrogen cars are powered by an electric motor and are therefore classified as e-cars

Hydrogen is one of the Earth’s most common elements. In fact, the universe is 75% hydrogen by mass.

It's also simple to make. All you need to do is run electricity through water. Well, that’s simplistic and feel free to research it yourself. This item focuses on hydrogen powered cars.

There’s a lot of research into hydrogen powered vehicles and currently experts predict large transport, such as long haulage ships, public transport and trucks will be the first to be powered this way.

But hopefully, the following information will be useful for the day you’re asking your great grand kids about the strange new gas-guzzler car they’ve just bought.

How does a hydrogen engine work?

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are powered by an electric motor and are therefore classified as e-cars. The common abbreviation is FCEV, short for “Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle,” in contrast to a BEV or “Battery Electric Vehicle.”

The big difference between hydrogen fuel cell cars and other electric vehicles – hydrogen cars produce the electricity themselves. So, unlike in fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, the vehicle doesn’t get its power from a built-in battery that can be charged from an external power source. Instead, hydrogen cars effectively have their own efficient power plant on board: the fuel cell.

In fuel cell technology, the hydrogen reacts in the fuel cell with oxygen from the air. The hydrogen comes from one or more tanks built into the FCEV, while the oxygen comes from the ambient air. The only results of this reaction are electrical energy, heat and water, which is emitted through the exhaust as water vapor. So, hydrogen-powered cars are locally emission-free. There is environmental debate about the energy used in the first place to make the hydrogen but that is a big story for another day.

The electricity generated in the fuel cell either flows to the electric motor and powers the FCEV directly or it charges a battery, which stores the energy until it’s needed for the engine. This battery, is significantly smaller and lighter than the battery of a fully electric car, as it’s being constantly recharged by the fuel cell.

Pros and cons of hydrogen-powered cars

Advantages for users:

  • The propulsion in hydrogen fuel cell cars is purely electrical. When you drive one, it feels similar to driving a regular electric car. What does that mean? Virtually no engine noise and a lively start, because electric motors provide full torque even at low speeds.
  • Another advantage is the quick charging time. Depending on the charging station and battery capacity, fully electric vehicles currently require between 30 minutes and several hours for a full charge. The hydrogen tanks of fuel cell cars, on the other hand, are full and ready to go again in less than five minutes. For users, this brings vehicle availability and flexibility into line with those of a conventional car.
  • For the time being, hydrogen cars still have a longer range than purely electric cars. A full hydrogen tank will last around 300 miles (approx. 480 kilometers). Battery-powered cars can match this with very large batteries – which in turn will lead to an increase in both vehicle weight and charging times.
  • The range of fuel cell vehicles is not dependent on the outside temperature
  • Disadvantages for users:

Currently, there are still very few refuelling stations for hydrogen-powered cars. At the end of 2019 there are only around 40 in the U.S as compared to approx. 80 in Germany.

In Australia, there are a few pumps in Canberra to service the ACT Government’s fleet and some in Victoria thanks to Toyota’s $7.4 million research and production plant on the site of the company’s former car manufacturing plant in Altona.

German refuelling initiative

Hydrogen highlights

  • In the last year, China, Japan and South Korea have together pledged to put almost 8 million hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road.
  • Boris Johnson, who once wrote that wind power "wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding", has invested 12 billion pounds in green energy, and, more importantly, banned the sale of all fossil fuel engines by 2030.
  • Australian Government is investing $300M and Industry is planning to invest multiples of this amount to commercialise the production, storage and transmission of Hydrogen. A key element will be to create hydrogen hubs – clusters of large-scale demand. These may be at ports, in cities, or in regional or remote areas, and will provide the industry with its springboard to scale.
  • Toyota operates a hydrogen production and re-fuelling facility in Victoria. The station is capable of filling a Toyota Mirai in approximately 3 minutes, giving the vehicle a range of 650km.
  • Free hydrogen filling in Canberra, delivered by Neoen and ActewAGL, catering to the ACT Government’s new fleet of Hyundai NEXO Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV).
  • The Hyundai NEXO is the first hydrogen-powered vehicle certified for sale in Australia.
  • While Toyota’s Mirai model is not on general sale in Australia, it has been sold in Japan, UK and US for the past seven years. The Met Police in London have been trialling it. To get its Mirai HFCEV on Australians roads, the company has partnered with Victorian businesses to lease fleets of the hydrogen-powered vehicles.
  • Lack of refuelling infrastructure in Australia as one of the main hurdles to bringing FCEVs to the Australian market but this was the case for Electric Vehicles initially as well.

In order to promote the expansion of refuelling infrastructure there, vehicle manufacturers have joined forces with hydrogen producers and filling station operators in the Clean Energy Partnership initiative, which plans to expand the hydrogen fuelling station network to 130 stations by 2022. That would allow the operation of about 60,000 hydrogen cars on Germany’s roads. The next target, with a corresponding increase in fuel cell vehicles, will be 400 stations by 2025.

How much do they cost – and why?

Currently, hydrogen fuel cell cars are expensive. The few models available on the market cost around USD 80,000 for a mid- or upper-mid-range vehicle. That’s almost twice as much as comparable fully electric or hybrid vehicles. The reasons for this include: 

Small volumes - production is still to be industrialised. 

They need the precious metal, platinum, which acts as a catalyst during power generation. 

Hydrogen cars tend to be quite large because the hydrogen tank(s) take up a lot of space. The drive unit for a purely battery-driven electric vehicle, on the other hand, also fits into small cars. That’s why classic electric cars can currently be found in all vehicle classes. 

Operating costs - the cost per mile of running hydrogen cars is therefore currently almost twice as high as that of battery-powered vehicles charged at home. BMW estimates increased demand could see the price drop to around USD 2.50/lb (USD 5.60/kg) by 2030.

Source: BMW