The long answer is that the Mirai is a type of electric vehicle. But instead of plugging into the wall to charge a battery, it converts compressed hydrogen to electricity in a device called a fuel cell. Its emissions are water and clean air (because the cells require exceptionally pure oxygen, the cars scrub pollutants from the atmosphere). And unlike battery-powered cars, hydrogen vehicles can be refuelled about as quickly as a petrol car and have a similar range.
Can you buy hydrogen-powered cars in Australia?
While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the technology is very much here and now. The hydrogen-powered Hyundai Nexo SUV hits the Australian market this year, with the ACT government ordering 20 as part of its zero-emissions fleet strategy. Toyota maintains a small fleet of Mirais as demonstrators and will open Victoria’s first commercial-grade refuelling centre at its old Altona plant next year.
It doesn’t mean, however, that we’re likely to be running on hydrogen soon. Most experts agree that as electric cars take off, battery plug-ins will likely be the first choice for the average motorist. They are cheaper, widely available and can be charged almost anywhere there’s a power point. By contrast, there are currently two hydrogen refuelling stations in Australia.
“So while it’s not yet a practical solution,” Claire says, “we see hydrogen vehicles as playing an important complementary role to battery electrics. Hydrogen is very light, and its range and ease of refuelling makes it particularly suitable for heavy transport, where payload is important. For instance, an electric bus can require five tonnes of batteries, so you’re pulling around batteries instead of people.
“Everything that’s petrol today will be battery in future, everything that’s diesel will be fuel cell...We’ve got a long way before we transition, but cars of the future won’t have internal combustion engines.
What about hydrogen-powered trucks and heavy fleet vehicles?
There are already signs of a heavy-vehicle hydrogen revolution. US brewing giant Anheuser-Busch recently reserved 800 hydrogen trucks from start-up manufacturer Nikola, while Hyundai has forged a partnership to sell 1000 into Switzerland. South Korea, meanwhile, hopes to have 1000 hydrogen buses on the road by 2023.
Many believe fleet operations and hydrogen power are a natural fit. Electric vehicles are generally cheaper to run, offering a commercial advantage, and the refuelling problem can be solved by generating hydrogen at the depot via electrolysis (basically, using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen). Infrastructure Victoria executive director Jonathan Spear is one who sees it as a possible pathway.
“If you have a big roof and can capture a lot of water and sun you can generate your own hydrogen,” he says. “So a fleet of buses and trucks might be viable even in the absence of a broader hydrogen economy.”
Hydrogen trucks could also solve many of the health and noise problems associated with diesel. “In industrial areas where vehicle noise has been a challenge, removing that could be very important to retaining the licence to operate,” Jonathan says. “And there’s millions of dollars of potential avoided harm from removing internal combustion emissions.”