Could hydrogen cars power a clean-energy future?

Moving Well | Michael Coulter | Photos: Julian Kingma | Posted on 03 October 2019

Zero emissions, hydrogen-powered cars could be key to creating a clean-energy future. 

It’s a brilliant autumn morning in Williamstown and Claire Johnson’s car is starting conversations. Parked by the foreshore bike path, her Toyota Mirai draws a steady trickle of curious onlookers, all with the same question: “Does it really run on hydrogen?” 

It’s an inquiry that she’s both used to and happy to hear. As Hydrogen Mobility Australia’s first chief executive (she left the role in June), Claire is a passionate advocate of a technology that many hope will revolutionise the transport and energy sectors. So the short answer to their question is: “Yes it really does.” 

Blue Toyota Mirai hydrogen car in motion driving down residential street

Introducing the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen-powered car that emits water and oxydgen.


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.” 

Close up of zero CO2 emissions vehicle
Woman standing in front of blue Toyota Mirai hydrogen vehicle parked at lake overlooking city skyline

Claire Johnson is an advocate for hydrogen-powered technology.


Is hydrogen power really cleaner than other types of fuel?

The other dimension of hydrogen is that it is much more than a transport fuel. Because it can be used to generate power or burned in place of natural gas, advocates foresee whole cities and economies running on clean, limitless hydrogen. Japan is actively working towards that scenario, aiming to have 800,000 hydrogen cars on the road by 2030, and to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes for power and heating.

The sticking point is generation and distribution. Making hydrogen is energy and emissions intensive, so the challenge is producing it at scale from green power – something that Australia with its abundant land, sun and wind could be well placed to do.

Is there a future for petrol in Australia?

Whatever the future holds, it will not look like today. Scott Nargar, head of government relations for Hyundai Australia, believes we are on the cusp of a transport revolution whether we’re ready for it or not.

“Everything that’s petrol today will be battery in future, everything that’s diesel will be fuel cell,” he says. “We’ve got a long way before we transition, but cars of the future won’t have internal combustion engines. Global emissions regulations will determine that, and it’s just a matter of Australia having the infrastructure ready when that day arrives. We can prepare for it, or be dragged along kicking and screaming.” 

Battery v hydrogen fuel cell 

  • Powered by a rechargeable battery that drives an electric motor.
  • Slower to recharge, but can be plugged in to any existing power point.
  • Shorter range than hydrogen vehicles. 
  • Requires heavy battery packs, making it less suitable for large vehicles.
  • More efficient.

Fuel cell 

  • Hydrogen undergoes a chemical reaction in a device called a fuel cell, producing electricity, water and heat.
  • Quick to fill, but requires specialised refuelling facilities that are still very rare (only two in Australia).
  • Longer range than battery-powered cars. 
  • Very light fuel – one kilogram of hydrogen provides enough energy to drive 100 kilometres.
     

RACV's position:

RACV is very interested in the potential of low-emissions vehicles. It is monitoring hydrogen production developments at the Toyota plant in Altona and new product development with hydrogen-powered vehicles at manufacturers including Hyundai.

RACV is technology neutral in terms of the electric-versus-hydrogen debate (or any other fuel type), and supports any technology, as long as it is proven to be both safe and efficient for the motoring public and all Victorians.