Everything you need to know about hydrogen cars

Moving Well | Tim Nicholson | Posted on 06 October 2020

How do hydrogen-powered cars work and are they better than electric vehicles?  

The federal government has flagged hydrogen as a ‘priority’ low-emissions technology under its recently announced $18 billion Technology Investment Roadmap to lower Australia’s carbon footprint.  

Australian Hydrogen Council CEO Dr Fiona Simon says the government’s commitment to hydrogen power, which includes support for hydrogen-powered vehicles under a new $74.5 million Future Fuels Fund, demonstrates “the important role hydrogen will play in Australia’s future energy mix”. 

She says the announcement will support the rollout of more hydrogen-powered vehicles on our roads, especially trucks and other heavy transport, but hydrogen power is also a viable option for passenger cars and SUVs. So will we all be driving hydrogen cars any time soon? And how do hydrogen vehicles work anyway, and do they stack up against electric cars

 
White Hyundai Nexo Fuel Cell Car parked in underground basement garage

There are currently two hydrogen-powered models in Australia – the Hyundai Nexo SUV (pictured) and Toyota Mirai sedan – but they are not yet available for private sale.



Everything you need to know about hydrogen-powered cars 


What is hydrogen power?

Hydrogen is the most common element on Earth and is found in water, natural gas, coal and petroleum. For industrial purposes it must be extracted from either water or fossil fuels. The extracted hydrogen is then combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce H2O (water) a process which releases energy that can be used to power industry, a house for heating or a vehicle. Hydrogen can be stored as a liquid for transportation or storage, for example in the fuel tank of a hydrogen-powered vehicle.  

How do hydrogen-powered vehicles work?

Unlike battery electric vehicles which get their power from a built-in battery charged from an external power source, hydrogen vehicles produce energy internally using a fuel cell. Hydrogen stored in the vehicle’s fuel tank reacts with oxygen in the fuel-cell stack through a process called reverse electrolysis which produces electrical energy, heat and water.

While heat and water are emitted through the exhaust as water vapour, the electricity either flows to the electric motor to power the vehicle directly, or charges a battery that stores the energy until it’s needed. A battery in a hydrogen-powered vehicle is much smaller and lighter than one in a fully electric car as it is constantly recharged by the fuel cell.

What emissions do they produce?

Like conventional electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered fuel cell EVs don’t produce any CO2 emissions. Aside from a little heat, the only thing a hydrogen-powered vehicle emits from its tailpipe is water vapour that is technically clean enough to drink. 

Are they safe?

When it comes to hydrogen-powered vehicles, many people think of the Hindenburg disaster (in which a hydrogen-filled German airship exploded in the United States in 1937, killing 36). But, in fact, they are as safe as conventional EVs and petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. An average petrol fuel tank holds up to four times the energy and explosive potential of a hydrogen fuel-cell tank.

How is the hydrogen stored?

In a hydrogen-powered vehicle the hydrogen is stored in liquid form in thick-walled tanks usually under the cargo area behind the rear seat. The tanks have been designed to withstand damage and thoroughly crash-tested. Extra safety mechanisms protect against leaks and explosions. Hyundai, for example, says if a hydrogen-powered vehicle catches fire, a detection system will force-expel the hydrogen from the tank into the atmosphere before the temperature reaches dangerous levels. It says the tank will not explode, even if the vehicle is incinerated. In the event of a hydrogen leak, it will be detected by sensors that will seal valves and fuel lines and set off an alarm. 

Close up of Toyota Mirai FC hydrogen car
Hyundai Nexo FC battery

Like conventional electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell EVs don’t produce any CO2 emissions.



Is hydrogen power truly green? 

According to the Australian Hydrogen Council, most hydrogen used today is extracted from fossil fuels. But if the energy used for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen (called electrolysis) comes from renewable sources like wind or solar, the resulting hydrogen is free of carbon emissions. Hydrogen can also be produced from fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage – one of the measures the government is considering as part of the Technology Investment Roadmap.  

Do we have hydrogen-powered vehicles in Australia?  

There are currently two models in Australia – the Toyota Mirai sedan and Hyundai Nexo SUV – but they are not yet available for private sale. Toyota’s Mirai is part of the car-maker’s hydrogen loan program and is being trialled by organisations including AusNet Services, Mondo, Moreland City Council and Hydrogen Mobility Australia. The Nexo is available through Hyundai’s loan program and a fleet of 20 cars that arrived in Australia in June were deployed to the ACT government.  

How do they stack up against battery electric vehicles? 

Hydrogen cars typically have a greater driving range than battery electric vehicles. Hyundai’s Nexo can drive for 666 kilometres before needing to be refuelled, while the Toyota Mirai’s range is 550 kilometres. Typically, petrol cars have a driving range of 400 to 600 kilometres on a tank of fuel. The driving range of battery electric vehicles varies depending on the battery size. The Nissan Leaf, for example, can travel 270 kilometres on a full charge while the Tesla Model S Long Range can reach 610 kilometres. Recharging an EV battery takes anywhere between 30 minutes or 12 hours depending on the speed of the charging point and battery size. Refuelling a hydrogen-powered passenger car takes just three to five minutes at a refuelling station. 

Will hydrogen-powered passenger cars take off in Australia? 

The lack of refuelling infrastructure, relatively high purchase price and higher uptake of battery electric vehicles will likely mean hydrogen-powered cars remain a niche market for the foreseeable future. The Hydrogen Council’s Fiona Simon says widespread uptake of hydrogen cars will, to a large extent, depend on investment in refuelling infrastructure to support the technology.

She says Hydrogen Council members are working with governments and others to develop hydrogen refuelling around the country. “This is by no means an easy feat and will take time, but we believe that as momentum for hydrogen builds in mobility applications, we will see an increase in speed at which the infrastructure is rolled out and a wider uptake in communities.”

Another hurdle is that it’s difficult for international manufacturers to make a strong business case for hydrogen-powered vehicles here as Australia is a low-volume market. So far, Hyundai and Toyota are the only global manufacturers to commit to hydrogen-powered vehicles for Australia. Audi and BMW are developing hydrogen models, while Honda and Mercedes-Benz have been in the game for a while. Benz announced recently that it would focus its resources on developing fuel-cell tech for heavy vehicles in partnership with Volvo Trucks. Honda is developing future fuel-cell technology with General Motors. 

Are there any hydrogen-powered vehicles built here? 

Earlier this year, new Australian automotive company H2X announced it will produce hydrogen-powered heavy and industrial vehicles as well as a hydrogen-powered SUV in Port Kembla, New South Wales. The Snowy medium SUV is expected to go on sale in 2022-23 with an anticipated driving range of about 650 kilometres.  

Are hydrogen cars common overseas? 

Manufacturers sell hydrogen vehicles in Japan, South Korea, Europe and parts of the US, but sales are low compared with battery electric vehicles. The biggest market for hydrogen vehicles is California, where just 8500 have been sold, compared with half a million battery electric vehicles. Chinese buyers have snapped up 7000 hydrogen-powered cars, compared with four million battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.  

 
Hydrogen powered Toyota Mirai fuel cell car refuelling at gas station

Toyota has a mobile refuelling pump for its fleet of Mirais, and is currently building a $7.4 million Hydrogen Centre at its former manufacturing site in Altona, which will have a refuelling station.



How do you refuel hydrogen-powered vehicles? 

Hydrogen refuelling stations can be standalone sites like battery electric vehicle charging stations, or they can sit within a conventional petrol station. Hydrogen fuel pumps look similar to public electric vehicle chargers.  

Currently, there is just one permanent hydrogen refuelling station in Australia – at Hyundai's Sydney headquarters. Toyota has a mobile refuelling pump for its fleet of Mirais, but the company is currently building a $7.4 million Hydrogen Centre at its former manufacturing site in Altona which will have a refuelling station.  

Australia’s first public hydrogen refuelling station is due to open in Canberra before the end of the year to service the fleet of Nexos. The partnership between the ACT government, ActewAGL and renewable energy developer Neoen will see hydrogen created onsite by electrolysis, using town water and electricity from the grid, produced from 100 per cent renewable energy sources. 

More public refuelling stations are planned for Sydney, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.  

Is hydrogen technology better suited to heavy vehicles? 

Hydrogen is seen by many industry figures as a more logical fit for heavy-commercial vehicles and transport. Hyundai Australia Senior Manager of Future Mobility and Government Relations Scott Nargar predicts that everything that runs on petrol today will be battery electric powered in the future while everything that is diesel-powered today will one day be hydrogen-powered. So most passenger cars and SUVs will eventually be battery electric powered, while light and heavy commercial vehicles will run on hydrogen. Hyundai, Toyota/Hino, Kenworth, Daimler/Volvo and US start-up Nikola are all in various stages of hydrogen truck development.  

Scott explains that hydrogen fuel cells lend themselves better to powering heavy loads. “If you’re pulling large masses in trucks and buses, you want them refuelled quickly. A hydrogen bus will refuel with 50 kilograms of hydrogen in 10 minutes. An electric bus will take a lot longer with a charger. Also, batteries take up a lot of weight and room. They say it takes seven tonnes of batteries in a truck to be able to do what a normal truck does.” 

How much do hydrogen-powered vehicles cost and are they worth the money? 

This is still a bit of an unknown given there is no pricing available for the Mirai or Nexo. Both models retail for about £66,000 in the United Kingdom and US$66,000 in the United States, which equates to A$118,000 and A$84,000 respectively.  

Toyota has yet to announce how much it will cost to refuel at its upcoming station and ActewAGL says the long-term operating costs of hydrogen refuelling stations will be one of the key findings of the Canberra project. 

In the US, it costs about US$16 per kilogram (A$23) to refuel a hydrogen-powered car, which equates to about A$138 to fill up the Nexo’s 6.3-kilogram tank. That’s quite a bit more than recharging a conventional battery-powered electric vehicle (up to $25 at a public charging station for a Hyundai Kona Electric) or refuelling a Santa Fe petrol large SUV (about $85).  

Of course, prices would come down if hydrogen takes off and the vehicles become more popular. A study by the California Energy Commission found that hydrogen prices could drop to about the same price as petrol by 2025. 

RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance. The roadside assistance you need from Victoria's most trusted provider.