Hydrogen Cars

Created on
June 21, 2022

What are they and do they have a future?

Those of you with a history GCSE or ‘O’ Level to your name, or any sort of general knowledge, will know that hydrogen does not have a particularly good track record for vehicular use. 

Dozens of hydrogen airships burned before the Hindenburg disaster in 1931 finally convinced the world that hydrogen, although cheap and more readily available than helium, was probably not the best gas for airships carrying people. 

So, that begs the question, is hydrogen an appropriate gas for cars carrying people? And could hydrogen cars one day replace electric vehicles? Let’s have a look.

What are hydrogen cars?

Hydrogen cars, catchily known as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), are powered by a series of chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Those reactions produce electricity that powers the car. So really, hydrogen cars are also electric cars, but rather than taking electricity from the grid and storing it in a battery like a traditional EV, they produce the electricity themselves.

Refuelling your hydrogen tank takes less than five minutes and is done in much the same way as you’d pump petrol or diesel. A single tank can provide enough hydrogen to travel 300-500 miles, and once you’re out on the road, the only waste product that emerges from your car’s exhaust pipe is water that’s pure enough to drink.

But the very impressive eco-credentials don’t stop there. As you drive along, the complex air filters in the car also draw in and clean the dirty air, so as well as not harming the environment, you’re also actively improving it.

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

How do hydrogen cars work?

At the moment, there are two different ways that hydrogen power is being used: 

Hydrogen fuel cells

The first is through the use of hydrogen fuel cells, which are combined to create stacks. They work in a similar way to an electric vehicle’s battery, with each cell containing a positively charged anode and a negatively charged cathode, separated by an electrolyte. 

- Hydrogen flows from the car’s tank to the platinum anode, where the anode acts as a catalyst and splits the hydrogen ions from the gas. 

- The ions then flow through the electrolyte to the cathode to build a positive charge. 

- The separated electrons, which are the negatively charged particles, cannot flow through the electrolyte. Instead, they flow around an external circuit and create a charge that powers the electric motor. 

- As the hydrogen ions come into contact with the cathode, they combine with the oxygen to produce water, which flows out of the car’s exhaust.

And hey presto, you have a moving car. 

Hydrogen for combustion

The second less common way that hydrogen is used is as a direct replacement for petrol and diesel in the combustion process. In this case:

 

- Pressurised hydrogen gas is fired into a converted internal combustion engine. 

- The combustion process takes place just as it would in a petrol-powered car. 

- Burning the hydrogen in this way produces fewer emissions than in a petrol engine, with water as the main by-product. 

- Some toxic gases are produced, so it’s not as clean as the fuel cell method above.      

Do hydrogen cars have a future?

Not according to Elon Musk. In 2019, he called hydrogen fuel cells “mind-bogglingly stupid” and said “success is simply not possible”. Those sound like the words of a man who’s feeling a bit threatened, but does he have a point..?

Probably the best way to determine the long-term viability of hydrogen cars is to look at the benefits and drawbacks they bring.

Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

The pros

It’s very clean and green

The biggest benefit of hydrogen fuel, at least when it comes to fuel cell electric vehicles, is that no emissions or harmful by-products are produced at all. Hydrogen is also very abundant, can be sourced locally, and if it’s sourced using renewable energy, it can be completely carbon-free. Even if it’s sourced using fossil fuels, it still produces fewer harmful emissions than petrol or diesel. Hydrogen fuel cells can also be recycled, making them a very green option. 

The range is excellent

Much has been said about the range anxiety that can come with battery electric vehicles (BEVs), particularly on longer journeys. This is unlikely to be a problem for hydrogen vehicles, which can cover 300-500 miles on a single tank. 

There’s no degradation

Unlike lithium-ion batteries, there’s no degradation to worry about with hydrogen fuel cells, so there’s no reduction in your vehicle’s maximum range over time. Hydrogen fuel cells will last the lifetime of your vehicle, which is 150,000 miles or more. 

The cons

It’s not by chance that as of June 2022, there were over 400,000 battery electric vehicles on the UK’s roads compared with around 300 hydrogen vehicles. There are definitely a few downsides that are holding buyers back. 

Very few cars to choose from

There are currently only two hydrogen cars available to buy in the UK: the Hyundai NEXO and the Toyota Mirai, so that doesn’t give you much choice. They sold a combined total of just over 15,000 units worldwide last year.

Hydrogen cars are expensive

Hydrogen-powered cars are expensive to buy, with an entry-level purchase price of around £50,000. That’s due to the expensive and rare metals that are used and the low production rates. As the technology improves, the upfront cost should come down. 

A shortage of refuelling stations

Although hydrogen cars have a better range than most BEVs, there are currently only 14 hydrogen refuelling stations in the whole of the UK. That’s compared to more than 31,000 electric charge points. Unless you have a local hydrogen refuelling station, you could have a long old drive to refuel. 

The price of hydrogen

The cost of petrol and diesel is disgustingly high right now. That’s made worse by the fact that oil and gas firms are passing on only 2p of Rishi Sunak’s 5p fuel duty cut all in the name of profiteering (what kind of a world do we live in). However, believe it or not, hydrogen is even more expensive, costing more per kilogram and per mile than petrol. 

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

So, should you buy a hydrogen car?

It’s still early days in the development of hydrogen cars. Although the vehicles on sale at the moment are incredible in terms of their technology and emissions (although they leave a little to be desired in the style stakes), they’re still very expensive. The lack of infrastructure means they’re only really practical for the few businesses that can benefit from the tax breaks and have their own refuelling stations. 

At the moment, all the momentum is with battery electric vehicles. Improvements in battery range and charging infrastructure, as well as the relatively low cost of installing an EV charge point at home, means that electric vehicles are by far the sounder investment. Charging electric vehicles on the move is also becoming much easier - and that’s where we come in. The Bonnet app gives drivers access to thousands of chargers across more than 17 charging networks all through one app. 

Whether hydrogen cars will become a practical choice for the general public in the future is a classic case of chicken and egg. People won’t buy hydrogen vehicles until the infrastructure is in place, but the infrastructure won’t improve until there are more hydrogen cars on the roads. Until that dilemma’s resolved, we’ll keep zipping around merrily in our EVs.  

June 21, 2022

What are they and do they have a future?

Those of you with a history GCSE or ‘O’ Level to your name, or any sort of general knowledge, will know that hydrogen does not have a particularly good track record for vehicular use. 

Dozens of hydrogen airships burned before the Hindenburg disaster in 1931 finally convinced the world that hydrogen, although cheap and more readily available than helium, was probably not the best gas for airships carrying people. 

So, that begs the question, is hydrogen an appropriate gas for cars carrying people? And could hydrogen cars one day replace electric vehicles? Let’s have a look.

What are hydrogen cars?

Hydrogen cars, catchily known as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), are powered by a series of chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Those reactions produce electricity that powers the car. So really, hydrogen cars are also electric cars, but rather than taking electricity from the grid and storing it in a battery like a traditional EV, they produce the electricity themselves.

Refuelling your hydrogen tank takes less than five minutes and is done in much the same way as you’d pump petrol or diesel. A single tank can provide enough hydrogen to travel 300-500 miles, and once you’re out on the road, the only waste product that emerges from your car’s exhaust pipe is water that’s pure enough to drink.

But the very impressive eco-credentials don’t stop there. As you drive along, the complex air filters in the car also draw in and clean the dirty air, so as well as not harming the environment, you’re also actively improving it.

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

How do hydrogen cars work?

At the moment, there are two different ways that hydrogen power is being used: 

Hydrogen fuel cells

The first is through the use of hydrogen fuel cells, which are combined to create stacks. They work in a similar way to an electric vehicle’s battery, with each cell containing a positively charged anode and a negatively charged cathode, separated by an electrolyte. 

- Hydrogen flows from the car’s tank to the platinum anode, where the anode acts as a catalyst and splits the hydrogen ions from the gas. 

- The ions then flow through the electrolyte to the cathode to build a positive charge. 

- The separated electrons, which are the negatively charged particles, cannot flow through the electrolyte. Instead, they flow around an external circuit and create a charge that powers the electric motor. 

- As the hydrogen ions come into contact with the cathode, they combine with the oxygen to produce water, which flows out of the car’s exhaust.

And hey presto, you have a moving car. 

Hydrogen for combustion

The second less common way that hydrogen is used is as a direct replacement for petrol and diesel in the combustion process. In this case:

 

- Pressurised hydrogen gas is fired into a converted internal combustion engine. 

- The combustion process takes place just as it would in a petrol-powered car. 

- Burning the hydrogen in this way produces fewer emissions than in a petrol engine, with water as the main by-product. 

- Some toxic gases are produced, so it’s not as clean as the fuel cell method above.      

Do hydrogen cars have a future?

Not according to Elon Musk. In 2019, he called hydrogen fuel cells “mind-bogglingly stupid” and said “success is simply not possible”. Those sound like the words of a man who’s feeling a bit threatened, but does he have a point..?

Probably the best way to determine the long-term viability of hydrogen cars is to look at the benefits and drawbacks they bring.

Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

The pros

It’s very clean and green

The biggest benefit of hydrogen fuel, at least when it comes to fuel cell electric vehicles, is that no emissions or harmful by-products are produced at all. Hydrogen is also very abundant, can be sourced locally, and if it’s sourced using renewable energy, it can be completely carbon-free. Even if it’s sourced using fossil fuels, it still produces fewer harmful emissions than petrol or diesel. Hydrogen fuel cells can also be recycled, making them a very green option. 

The range is excellent

Much has been said about the range anxiety that can come with battery electric vehicles (BEVs), particularly on longer journeys. This is unlikely to be a problem for hydrogen vehicles, which can cover 300-500 miles on a single tank. 

There’s no degradation

Unlike lithium-ion batteries, there’s no degradation to worry about with hydrogen fuel cells, so there’s no reduction in your vehicle’s maximum range over time. Hydrogen fuel cells will last the lifetime of your vehicle, which is 150,000 miles or more. 

The cons

It’s not by chance that as of June 2022, there were over 400,000 battery electric vehicles on the UK’s roads compared with around 300 hydrogen vehicles. There are definitely a few downsides that are holding buyers back. 

Very few cars to choose from

There are currently only two hydrogen cars available to buy in the UK: the Hyundai NEXO and the Toyota Mirai, so that doesn’t give you much choice. They sold a combined total of just over 15,000 units worldwide last year.

Hydrogen cars are expensive

Hydrogen-powered cars are expensive to buy, with an entry-level purchase price of around £50,000. That’s due to the expensive and rare metals that are used and the low production rates. As the technology improves, the upfront cost should come down. 

A shortage of refuelling stations

Although hydrogen cars have a better range than most BEVs, there are currently only 14 hydrogen refuelling stations in the whole of the UK. That’s compared to more than 31,000 electric charge points. Unless you have a local hydrogen refuelling station, you could have a long old drive to refuel. 

The price of hydrogen

The cost of petrol and diesel is disgustingly high right now. That’s made worse by the fact that oil and gas firms are passing on only 2p of Rishi Sunak’s 5p fuel duty cut all in the name of profiteering (what kind of a world do we live in). However, believe it or not, hydrogen is even more expensive, costing more per kilogram and per mile than petrol. 

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

So, should you buy a hydrogen car?

It’s still early days in the development of hydrogen cars. Although the vehicles on sale at the moment are incredible in terms of their technology and emissions (although they leave a little to be desired in the style stakes), they’re still very expensive. The lack of infrastructure means they’re only really practical for the few businesses that can benefit from the tax breaks and have their own refuelling stations. 

At the moment, all the momentum is with battery electric vehicles. Improvements in battery range and charging infrastructure, as well as the relatively low cost of installing an EV charge point at home, means that electric vehicles are by far the sounder investment. Charging electric vehicles on the move is also becoming much easier - and that’s where we come in. The Bonnet app gives drivers access to thousands of chargers across more than 17 charging networks all through one app. 

Whether hydrogen cars will become a practical choice for the general public in the future is a classic case of chicken and egg. People won’t buy hydrogen vehicles until the infrastructure is in place, but the infrastructure won’t improve until there are more hydrogen cars on the roads. Until that dilemma’s resolved, we’ll keep zipping around merrily in our EVs.  

Related Posts

Ready to Charge?

Great, you’re onboard! Download Bonnet today for the best EV charging experience.