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Hydrogen cars: do hydrogen fuel cell or combustion cars have a future?

With sales of electric vehicles increasing fast, do hydrogen fuel cell cars have a future on our roads?

Selection of hydrogen cars

While battery electric car sales are growing rapidly, with the technology having been widely adopted as the future of emissions free motoring, hydrogen cars are still somewhat overlooked. Although there are a few hydrogen-powered cars available for sale in the UK, hardly anyone is currently buying or even considering them, partly down to the UK's almost non-existent hydrogen refuelling network. So do hydrogen fuel cell vehicles really have a future? 

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Car makers have been experimenting with hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technology for a number of years, trying to crack the formula for using the most abundant resource in the universe to power cars. While progress has been made, it has been very slow compared to that of battery electric vehicle technology.

At the time of writing, there are only two mainstream hydrogen-powered cars on sale: the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. There are more hydrogen-powered cars and vans confirmed to be on the way, though, with brands such as BMW, Land Rover and Vauxhall all planning new models within the next five years. 

Because refilling a hydrogen car is very similar to filling up with petrol or diesel, it is also almost as quick - it takes around 5 minutes to fill a tank. This is undoubtedly an advantage over the long waiting times associated with charging a battery electric car. 

Hydrogen car filler

However, One of the biggest reasons for the slow uptake of hydrogen vehicles is the existing infrastructure. According to UK H2 Mobility, there are currently 6 hydrogen filling stations open in the UK with 5 more planned. This is obviously far less than the amount of petrol stations and public EV charge points and unless you have one on your doorstep, or a private one at your place of work, running a hydrogen car is an impossibility. 

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There are also concerns about the environmental impact of hydrogen, which takes a lot of electricity to make in large quantities, even when produced from renewable sources. This, along with several other production hurdles, is apparently being overcome, though, and as technology develops there is still a real chance that hydrogen could find itself as a much more prominent part of our transportation fuel mix in the near future. 

How do hydrogen cars work? 

One of the arguments that’s sometimes made against hydrogen vehicles is that they’re less efficient than EVs. Because hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally, it has to be extracted, then compressed in fuel tanks. It then has to mix with oxygen in a fuel cell stack to create electricity to power the car’s motors. Cynics point to the efficiency loss in this process when compared with an electric car in which the electricity comes straight from a battery pack charged from the mains. 

That’s true to an extent, but hydrogen-powered cars are not really expected to replace EVs. Instead, hydrogen is intended to complement pure electric power, and there’s a good reason for this: it is the cleanest fuel possible.

Lithium-ion battery production for electric cars is very energy-intensive, with Lithium mining alone emitting tonnes of CO2. If you take this into account along with charging the battery from anything other than a zero-emission source throughout its lifetime, an electric car still contributes towards a certain amount of CO2 emissions - even if this does not originate from an exhaust.

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Of course, if an EV battery is produced using responsibly sourced materials and renewable energy, this helps to lower these overall emissions further.

In comparison, today’s hydrogen cars have life-cycle emissions that are at least as low as that of EVs. They don't need large batteries as the fuel cell works to turn hydrogen into electricity to drive the motors. A recent study found a hydrogen car emits around 120g/km of CO2 over its lifetime, but this can be brought down significantly to around 60g/km when hydrogen is produced using renewable energy.

Is Hydrogen fuel inefficient, or ‘dirty’?

Much of today’s hydrogen is reformed from natural gas, but the future focus is entirely on renewable sources - although, it will take some years to get there. In terms of efficiency, it’s always better in theory to use wind or solar-generated power in the grid rather than converting it to hydrogen, but it’s practically impossible to store enough energy in batteries for heavy transport needs - or as is often in the case for car drivers, to get enough electricity to where it’s needed. Hydrogen can easily be transported around the world in bulk in the form of Ammonia, stored in pressurised tanks and, if it’s produced from renewables, the argument goes that energy losses in conversion don’t harm the planet.

Additionally, hydrogen is a great way to store excess electrical energy that nobody wants to buy when (for example) wind turbines are producing more energy than the grid requires due to the weather. Currently in those conditions generators are simply switched off, yet calculations in Germany suggest that enough ‘free’ electricity could have been generated in 2022 to electrolyse 100,000 tons of H2.

Do hydrogen cars require too much expensive new infrastructure?

The industry is exploring ways to use existing natural gas distribution grids for easy transport of renewable hydrogen across countries and under the ocean floor. Research at Birmingham University in the UK, and elsewhere, heralds a distribution network where hydrogen can be mixed into natural gas flowing through the domestic supply grid,  then separated out again where hydrogen fuel is needed - be that for industry, or transport.

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Much investment is required for renewable hydrogen production, but it’s already gathering steam rapidly. Meanwhile, recent analysis suggests a dual-pronged approach to developing EV charger infrastructure where it’s easy, and hydrogen filling stations where it’s not, could save billions in investment costs globally and speed the journey to net zero emissions.

Isn't hydrogen dangerously explosive?

Even today, the mention of hydrogen fuel prompts some people to recall the horrific images of the Hindenberg and run a mile. Research shows the  famous 1936 airship disaster was the result of the craft’s vast casing burning fiercely for half a minute as the coatings applied had a similar chemical composition to Thermite - the hydrogen itself never exploded in spite of public misconceptions. Similarly, at the start of the space programme US scientists attempted - and failed - to get H2 to explode. In 61 attempts, only two explosions were achieved, each requiring careful mixing of liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen. While H2 gas is considered explosive and needs careful handling (just like petrol), the small quantities released from a ruptured vehicle fuel tank would dissipate in air almost instantaneously. 

Can hydrogen save the ICE engine?

Fuel cells are not the only option for H2, and there’s plenty of interest in using the gas to power internal combustion engines. JCB is a leading UK company pioneering H2 ICE in its earth-moving plant, and has recently installed its hydrogen-fuelled engine in a truck.  “There is no reason we should not see hydrogen combustion engines in vehicles used on the roads in the future, including cars.” said Chairman Lord Bamford at the vehicle launch, but most mainstream car manufacturers are currently less bullish.

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Toyota believes H2 ICE has a place in motorsport, where fans want to hear the sound of traditional engines, but in spite of recently revealing its Corolla Cross - a GR-based SUV concept with an H2-fuelled 1.6-litre engine and space for five passengers - it maintains H2 ICE tech is only 40 per cent along the road to commercialisation.  “It is not yet possible to say if the technology will reach maturity for road cars,” the company stated recently.

What is happening to the global market for hydrogen cars?

Fewer than 500 hydrogen powered cars have been registered in the UK over the last decade, but the Hydrogen Council (an industry body) has predicted there could be 13 million fuel cell vehicles in operation globally as soon as 2030, including 1 million vans, trucks and buses. To many that will sound implausible, given that only around 26,000 fuel cell cars are registered globally to date, plus almost 6,000 buses. However fuel station numbers are also expanding rapidly.

As of 2022 China led with 161, followed by Japan and Korea. Germany is the only European country with more than 100 fuel stations, and even the US has fewer than 100, but again the Hydrogen Council predicts there will be 10,0000 H2 fuel stations globally by 2030 based on current investment plans. A recent Market Research Future report predicts the global value of the fuel cell vehicle market will rise from $1.2bn now to $46bn by 2030.

What’s the future for hydrogen cars?

For truly sustainable mobility, hydrogen is a fuel that cannot be ignored. It is also regarded as a potential alternative for fuelling HGVs, where electric trucks are hampered by battery capacity and having to recharge using the power grid. The biggest downside, though, is that developing a full hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, where the gas is produced and then transported to stations, will take billions of pounds and a number of years to develop. 

The key to encouraging hydrogen vehicles is by making them part of a wider ‘hydrogen economy’ – building refuelling stations for hydrogen cars alone would be inefficient. Instead, ideally, the whole energy sector would incorporate hydrogen into the mix, from refuelling cars to storing energy for homes. Another benefit of hydrogen is that it can potentially be produced on site rather than being transported like fuel, or supplied through the grid like electricity. 

But even with hydrogen infrastructure in place, be it local or nationwide, hydrogen vehicles still face the issue of costs. The Toyota Mirai retails from upwards of £50,000. That is a lot to pay for any car, but, as with electric cars, as the technology improves and becomes more mainstream, prices should start to fall. There are still a lot of ‘ifs’ about hydrogen, but there are far fewer today than there were a decade ago. 

Hydrogen isn’t the only alternative to electric power, click here to find out more about synthetic fuels.

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Shane is responsible for looking after the day-to-day running of the Auto Express website and social media channels. Prior to joining Auto Express in 2021, he worked as a radio producer and presenter for outlets such as the BBC.

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