Are hydrogen cars and trucks the future of low emissions transport?

fuelling up car with hydrogen gas


Posted October 06, 2020

How do hydrogen-powered cars work? Are hydrogen-powered cars better than electric vehicles? Is hydrogen the future of trucking? Your key hydrogen questions answered.

Hydrogen has long been touted by some automotive industry stakholders and governments as a key technology to help drive emissions lower. Here’s what you need to know about hydrogen-powered cars and trucks – including how they stack up against battery electric vehicles, and the potential for hydrogen to transform the trucking industry.


Learn about the future of fuel with hydrogen.

Guide to hydrogen-powered cars and trucks

What is hydrogen power?

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. On Earth, Hydrogen is the third most abundant element, and is found in water, natural gas, coal and petroleum. It has long been used in industrial purposes like fertilizer production and in petroleum refining and metals manufacturing. Hydrogen can be stored as a liquid for transportation or storage. Hydrogen can also be used to generate electric energy which can power many things including a hydrogen vehicle. For this application, hydrogen is supplied to a fuel cell where a reaction takes by combining the hydrogen with oxygen, which creates energy and water. That electrical energy then powers the drivetrain direct, or is stored in a battery cell Hydrogen in this type of vehicle is stored in the fuel tank which can be refuelled via a dedicated Hydrogen bowser – similar to the refuelling experience we all know today.

How do hydrogen-powered vehicles work?

Unlike battery electric vehicles which are powered via the built-in battery charged that is re-charged by electric power and connected via an electric cable to the car’s ‘charge point’, hydrogen vehicles have a different set up. According to thre CSIRO, hydrogen vehicles produce electric energy using a fuel cell. The fuel cell is a device that takes chemical energy, in the form of hydrogen, and turns it into electricity that can power an electric motor.

Hydrogen vehicles emit heat and water vapour through the exhaust, and  the battery size 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.

While a battery electric vehicle can be charged via using ‘regular’ grid electricity and renewable energy generated by solar at home or on the road, hydrogen-powered vehicles need a continued supply of hydrogen fuel – and that requires new infrastructure. As at today refuelling options today remain very limited, but this may shift over the coming decades.

What emissions do hydrogen-powered vehicles produce?

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.

The major potential and ongoing impact from hydrogen vehicles comes from the fuel itself. If hydrogen is produced from renewable energy, the fuel will have a zero emission profile. However, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels according to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

hydrogen powered toyota mirai

The Toyota Mirai is one of the few hydrogen-powered vehicles in Australia – but is not yet available for private sale.

Are hydrogen-powered vehicles 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). However, hydrogen-powered vehicles are considered 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 in hydrogen-powered vehicles stored?

In a hydrogen-powered passenger 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.

Is hydrogen power truly green and renewable? 

According to the Australian Hydrogen Council, most hydrogen used today is produced from fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be truly green if created by using renewable-powered electricity as the energy used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (called electrolysis), the resulting hydrogen is free of carbon emissions and can be stored and transported and supplied to vehicles via a bowser set-up

Do we have hydrogen-powered vehicles in Australia?  

There are currently two hydrogen passenger models in Australia produced by major manufacturers – the Toyota Mirai sedan and Hyundai Nexo SUV – but they are not yet available for private sale. Both the Mirai and Nexo are part of the automakers’ hydrogen loan programs for fleet operators and are being trialled by various organisations.

While a few more hydrogen vehicle models (such the H2X Warrego, Ineos Grenadier and Land Rover Defender) have been reported to be arriving on our shores soon, they are a high-priced option and will face the issue of limited refuelling stations for some time to come.

How do hydrogen-powered vehicles compare against battery electric vehicles? 

Hydrogen cars generally 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 time required to recharge an EV battery can differ 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, similar to that of a petrol or diesel car.

Will hydrogen-powered passenger cars take off in Australia? 

The lack of refuelling infrastructure, relatively high purchase price and growing popularity and affordability of battery electric vehicles which can be charged from rooftop solar will likely mean hydrogen-powered cars remain a niche market for the foreseeable future. Widespread uptake of hydrogen cars will, to a large extent, depend on investment from governments and the private sector in refuelling infrastructure to support the technology.

Another hurdle is that it’s difficult for international manufacturers to make a strong business case to bring hydrogen-powered vehicles to Australia. So far, Toyota and Hyundai are the major global manufacturers to commit to hydrogen-powered vehicles for Australia. Both the Toyota Mirai sedan and Hyundai Nexo SUV however are only available to fleet operators.


bowser in car fuelling up hydrogen powered car

There are limited hydrogen refuelling stations open in Australia. Image: Getty.

Are hydrogen cars common overseas? 

Manufacturers sell hydrogen vehicles in Japan, South Korea, Europe and parts of the US, but sales are very low compared to battery electric vehicles. According to JATO, global sales of hydrogen fuel-cell cars increased 84% to 15,500 units in 2021, compared to 4.2 million battery electric vehicles, up 108% from the year prior.

How do you refuel hydrogen-powered vehicles? 

Hydrogen refuelling stations can be standalone sites like battery electric vehicle charging stations, they can be mobile and set up on a road-train scale truck, or they can sit within a conventional petrol station.

Permanent hydrogen refuelling stations in Australia are few and far between in Australia. There is a hydrogen refuelling station at Hyundai's Sydney headquarters, one at Toyota’s former manufacturing hub in Altona in Melbourne’s west, and the country’s first petrol-station set up for a hydrogen service in Brisbane, operated by BP.

Is hydrogen technology better suited to heavy vehicles? 

Hydrogen is seen by many truck and auto industry figures as a more logical fit for heavy-commercial vehicles and transport. Some believe that everything that runs on petrol today will be battery electric powered in the future while everything that is diesel-powered today and that carries heavy loads will one day be hydrogen-powered. As a consequence, most passenger cars and SUVs bought and driven by the general public in coming years will increasingly be battery electric powered. Light and heavy commercial vehicles are expected to run on hydrogen in the decades to come.

Hyundai, Toyota/Hino, Kenworth, Daimler/Volvo, Hyzon Motors and US start-up Nikola are all in various stages of hydrogen truck development.

Hydrogen fuel cells lend themselves better to powering heavy loads. Heavy duty trucks would require several tonnes worth of batteries to carry the loads they currently handle. However, with technology developments are happening at a rapid rate, there is a high likelihood that both electric battery EV heavy vehicles and hydrogen heavy vehicles will become a regular site on our roads. EV pioneer Tesla's brand new EV truck is nearing production.

Are there any hydrogen trucks built in Australia? 

Melbourne is now home to Hyzon Motors Australia's headquarters, a global leader in zero-emissions hydrogen powered commercial vehicles, under a partnership agreement between the RACV and Hyzon.

Under the agreement, Hyzon Motors in conjunction with the RACV at their Noble Park site in Melbourne’s east, is developing a purpose-built facility including corporate offices, showroom, assembly warehousing and workshop. Once complete, the Hyzon Motors site is expected to generate over a 100 local engineering and manufacturing jobs by 2025.

The partnership also includes hydrogen powered vehicles for RACV owned subsidiary Nationwide Group, the first order of such vehicles for a towing company in Australia.


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