The automotive industry is one of the leading contributors to global warming, and as a result, humans have had to look for alternative sources of energy to propel our vehicles. Electric power has come leaps and bounds over the last decade, and will continue to grow in prominence as infrastructure expands and technologies develop. But that has also given rise to another promising source of energy: hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen is not only the most abundant element on our planet, but also the entire cosmos. So it makes sense to try and use it as a propellant. Some companies have already started to manufacture hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars, but there are still barriers to overcome before we can truly see them become a commonplace in society.
This Karfu guide will tell you everything you need to know about hydrogen fuel cells, what options are currently available to you and everything in between.
How do hydrogen fuel cell cars work?
Essentially, a hydrogen fuel cell car creates an electro-chemical reaction using two chemicals: hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is provided from its fuel tank and the oxygen from the air, with the resultant chemical reaction also producing electricity, hence the name ‘electro-chemical reaction’.
Hydrogen fuel cells are similar to conventional batteries in that they contain an electrolyte - which is sometimes known as a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) - that is sandwiched between an anode (positive terminal) and a cathode (negative terminal). The key difference between the two is that hydrogen fuel cells only convert the energy from hydrogen to electricity, so it isn’t stored in cells like it is in a battery electric car.
The cells within a hydrogen car have multiple ‘fuel cell stacks’ that generate electric power to drive the motor. As the compressed hydrogen passes through the fuel cell ‘stacks’, it combines with oxygen that has been pulled from the air outside to allow for the ‘electro-chemical’ reaction that powers the car. The only waste bi-product is water, which is drained out of the exhaust. The result of this process? Zero tailpipe emissions.
What hydrogen fuel cell cars are available to purchase currently?
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are very much billed as ‘cars of the future’, so as you can guess, there are still very few options available in the UK. Currently, there are only two in production: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, and neither are what you’d call ‘’cheap’’.
Priced from: £49,995 - £66,000 (four trim levels)
The ‘Mirai’ - which means ‘‘future’ in Japanese - was initially released in its first-generation guise back in 2014. We’re now in the saloon’s second-generation form, which produces 180bhp and 221lb-ft of torque from its AC synchronous motor. A hydrogen storage tank capacity of 5.6kg also helps it provide an estimated 400 miles of range.
Priced from: £69,495 (single trim level)
By comparison, the Nexo is an SUV that houses a 6.33kg hydrogen storage tank which, despite being bigger in size, only manages an estimated range of 266 miles. Its permanent magnet electric motor produces 161bhp and 291lb-ft of torque. The Nexo is available in just one trim grade compared to the Mirai’s four.
How much do hydrogen fuel cell cars cost to refuel, and how is it done?
The first thing to remember is that hydrogen is measured in kilograms (kg) as opposed to the litre/gallon volume associated with conventional fuels. At the time of writing, one kg of hydrogen costs around £12, but given that there are still so few stations available, prices can fluctuate a fair amount.
To put that into context, the 5kg hydrogen fuel tank in a Toyota Mirai would cost around £60 to fill, with its bulkier counterpart, the Nexo, costing around £76. This puts hydrogen at a considerably higher refuelling cost than that of an electric car. However, if hydrogen consumption becomes a norm and infrastructure improves, we could see prices coming down.
The refuelling procedure is very similar to that of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, with the average refuel taking around three minutes. Larger vehicles, such as buses, can take as long as seven minutes.
A fuel pump - like those seen in conventional petrol stations - dispenses fuel through a nozzle. It won’t refuel until the nozzle has been properly inserted, ensuring that there is no wastage of fuel. Once filled to the desired level, or the maximum capacity of the car, a stutter will occur. The process will be eerily familiar to many.
What infrastructure is currently in place?
Currently, there are 15 hydrogen fuel stations available to the public in the UK, with the largest - the Metroline in Perivale - capable of providing 1,500kg of hydrogen per day. Following behind in second place is the Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, which can expend 1,200kg of hydrogen daily. Kittybrewster in Aberdeen completes the UK triumvirate of three biggest, but sees a significant drop in hydrogen allowance to 360kg available each day.
In that regard, the UK is still some distance behind several other European nations. Germany holds the record with 100 hydrogen fuel stations, while France provides access to 40. This will no doubt increase if hydrogen fuel cell cars become more popular, which could become a real possibility as the UK Government begins to phase out ICE-powered cars and looks towards a greener future.
Here is the full list of hydrogen fuel stations currently available in the UK, followed by the amount of hydrogen that can be provided daily:
1. Metroline (Perivale) = 1,500kg
2. Tyseley Energy Park (Birmingham) = 1,200kg
3. Kittybrewster (Aberdeen) = 360kg
4. Honda Plant (Swindon) = 200kg
5. CEME (Rainham) = 100kg
6. NPL (Teddington) = 100kg
7. Tullos (Aberdeen) = 80kg
8. Shell Gatwick (London) = 80kg
9. Shell (Beaconsfield) = 80kg
10. Shell Cobham (London) = 80kg
11. AMP (Sheffield) = 80kg
12. Hatton Cross (London) = 80kg
13. Orkey (Northern Isles) = 80kg
14. J Matthey (Swindon) = 80kg
15. Belfast (Northern Ireland) = 60kg
How much do hydrogen fuel cell cars cost to maintain?
Since there are considerably less moving parts in a hydrogen fuel cell car, it will cost much less to service than an ICE car would. And since they produce zero tailpipe emissions, fuel cell cars are not only free from the London Congestion Zone Charge, but are also exempt from road tax and the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). As a result, hydrogen-powered cars are estimated to cost a similar amount to BEVs (battery electric vehicles) in terms of maintenance expenditure.
What are the advantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars?
Zero tailpipe emissions - With water being the only bi-product from the process of converting hydrogen into a propellant, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) present a viable green option for the future.
Quick refuelling process - Considering most people have owned and lived with an ICE-powered vehicle previously and are therefore used to the quick fuel stops, hydrogen presents a similar option with an average refuel time of three minutes for cars.
Credible range distances - With the UK’s two-car hydrogen line-up averaging out at 333 miles of range, they present competitive distances to most ICE cars.
Very efficient propulsion - Hydrogen fuel cell powertrains are much more efficient at drawing energy out from hydrogen than ICE cars are with petrol or diesel. This not only makes them more cost-effective, but contributes to environmental friendliness.
What are the disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars?
Still not as efficient as electric cars - The stark reality is that the process of conversion adopted by hydrogen fuel cell cars is only 60% efficient, which is three times less than a BEV. Factor in that 95% of the hydrogen is currently being drawn from fossil fuel sources, and fuel cells simply don’t comply with the net-zero carbon future we’re hoping for - at least not for the time being.
Number of refuelling stations - With the aforementioned list of 15 refuelling stations making up the entirety of the UK market, we’ve still got a long way to go before a consistent string of stations are available at reasonable distances from FCEV owners.
Cost of hydrogen - Not only is refuelling hydrogen still currently at a comparable price to traditional fuels, but the cost of building the stations and the technology required to store and transport hydrogen isn’t cheap either.
Potential safety risk - Take this with a pinch of salt. Petrol and diesel are flammable, just as hydrogen is, but that hasn’t necessarily prevented us from using them. The same safety concern was voiced about electric cars too, but this has slowly fallen into the background as people began to realise that the ‘fire hazard’ can be associated with almost any type of propellant.
So overall, how do FCEVs compare to BEVs?
With water vapour being the only waste product from FCEVs, they can claim to be as environmentally friendly as BEVs when tailpipe emissions are concerned. However, they are less efficient than BEVs, since the former must first generate hydrogen before creating electricity in the fuel cell, while the latter draws electricity directly from the national grid before storing it within its batteries.
So, while the common use of hydrogen fuel cell cars may still be several years away, there is an open question that they, alongside electric cars, could provide a strong alternative to internal combustion engine cars in the foreseeable future.
Interested by the prospect of hydrogen fuel cell cars? Carry on the conversation in the comments section below!