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What are hydrogen-fuelled cars?

heycar editorial team

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heycar editorial team

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  • What is a hydrogen car and how does it work? 
  • We explore whether hydrogen is better than EV power
  • Find out what hydrogen cars you can currently buy 

xYou might have heard hydrogen cars mentioned and thought they were one of those slightly wacky inventions like the hovercraft. Very plausible, but they’ll never really take off.

That may still prove the case. But at the moment, every major car maker is working on hydrogen as a potential fuel of the future. What are hydrogen cars, can you buy them yet, and are they really a sensible rival to electric cars? We answer those questions and more.

How is hydrogen used as a fuel for cars?

Although hydrogen is a natural element, it doesn’t occur on its own at the bottom of handy wells like fossil fuels. It needs to be extracted from other gases such as methane.

Once that has been done, the hydrogen is compressed. It can then be delivered to fuel stations. Drivers put the hydrogen into tanks in their cars with something resembling the petrol pumps we’re used to.

How hydrogen cars work

Cars powered by hydrogen use what is called a fuel cell. This is positioned where you’d find an engine in a regular car. A fuel cell is about the same size as an engine and it’s a bit like a permanent chemistry experiment going on beneath your bonnet.

The cell combines hydrogen with oxygen that’s drawn in from outside. The result of this chemical reaction is electricity, with the only by-products being heat and water. The electricity then powers a motor, in the same way that batteries do today in electric vehicles.

Why hydrogen cars are better than electric

At the moment a lot of electric car owners charge their batteries using energy that’s generated by fossil fuels. Although their cars have zero emissions, they’re creating pollution by fuelling them.

Some hydrogen fuel stations can generate their own hydrogen on site using electrolysis. That means no environmental impact from delivering fuel to the pumps.

Hydrogen is also a very convenient fuel. There’s no hanging around watching a battery meter creep up glacially slowly, as can be the case when charging electric cars. A hydrogen Toyota can be replenished in less than five minutes, rather like filling up with fuel today. Its maker claims it will then be good for 300-plus miles.

Why hydrogen cars are worse than electric

Imagine owning a petrol car but there only being a handful of fuel stations. Life would get pretty boring pretty quickly. And that’s the big problem with hydrogen cars. Unlike electric rivals, you don’t just plug them in outside your home or on the street. And the refuelling infrastructure is very limited.

Then there’s transporting the hydrogen if it’s not generated on site. It needs to be carried in big, possibly polluting tankers - rather like the fossil fuels we use today. And creating hydrogen has an environmental impact of its own. The most popular way of making it is from methane, which itself is considered a climate change gas.

It also might not have escaped your notice that hydrogen catches fire very easily – one of the reasons they stopped using it in airships. And there were fears about storing it under pressure in tanks in cars. But the tanks are reinforced – Toyota’s has three layers - and they’ve undergone serious crash testing to make sure there’s no danger to other road users.

Where to buy hydrogen for cars?

You buy hydrogen at filling stations, exactly as you would petrol or diesel. Some are run by conventional fuel companies such as Shell, others are bespoke hydrogen sites. But charging resource ZapMap shows just 12 hydrogen filling stations in the UK in late 2019. Of those, six are in or around London.

What hydrogen cars can you buy?

At the moment, there are only three hydrogen cars on sale in the UK: the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai Nexo. All are quite wild and wacky looking designs, as you might expect from something pioneering new technology. The downside is, all are expensive because they’re pioneering new technology.

The Toyota Mirai costs £66,000, although as with all other zero emissions vehicles, you do get a £3,500 government grant towards that.

Honda claims its Clarity will cover 385 miles on a fill up. But it only leases the car to businesses.

Hyundai, meanwhile, says its Nexo model will cover 414 miles after a five-minute fill up. Performance is comparable to a normal internal combustion engine too. It’ll do 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds and has a top speed of 111mph. But again, it’s expensive, costing £65,995 after the government grant has been applied.

Cost of hydrogen fuel per gallon UK

One of the things we’ll have to get used to in the brave new world of hydrogen is that we’ll no longer buy fuel by the gallon or litre. It’s sold by the kilogram. Although the price of hydrogen is variable, cars generally take around five kg of it and prices for a fill up work out about the same as a petrol car. But the hydrogen car is zero emissions.

Will hydrogen cars be the future?

The hydrogen cars vs electric cars debate is a hot topic among enthusiasts for greener motoring. Some think that electric cars are the short to medium term answer, hydrogen is the longer term solution. Others believe hydrogen and electric cars will coexist side by side, rather like petrol and diesel do currently.

But with increasing sums of money being spent by car makers on solving the hydrogen question, they won’t be going away any time soon.


See also: 

EVs with the longest range

Best electric cars for £20,000

Cheapest electric cars