While electric cars have been firmly in the spotlight in recent years, another zero-emission driving option has been quietly developed without as much attention.
A hydrogen car – also known as hydrogen fuel cell cars or Fuel Cell Vehicles – offers another alternative to petrol and diesel cars, but also electric vehicles (EV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV).
Despite the benefits a hydrogen car can bring, there’s still an element of the unknown about this type of vehicle. Here, we go into more detail about hydrogen powered cars, how they work, and ask the big question: do hydrogen cars have a future as a genuine option for the UK buyer?
What are Hydrogen Cars?
In the simplest of terms, a hydrogen car is one powered by hydrogen. They are more fuel efficient than vehicles with an internal combustion engine (ICE) and, like electric cars, have zero tailpipe emissions, so they’re clean to run, too. The only emissions from the tailpipe of a hydrogen car is water.
Hydrogen cars are very similar to electric cars in terms of driving. Instant acceleration, smooth transmission with no gears to change, and almost silence from the vehicle with no engine.
It’s quick to refuel, much quicker than the equivalent time to recharge an electric car. A hydrogen car is refuelled at the pump, like a petrol or diesel car. It only takes a few minutes to refill a hydrogen car’s tanks, although the refuelling network is currently small with only a handful of pumps around the UK. That network is expected to grow in future years.
There aren’t many hydrogen cars for sale in the UK. As 2022 draws to a close, there are only two mainstream models – the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai – but more are in production. One of these is the BMW iX5 Hydrogen, which went into limited production in 2022 for real-world testing.
However, there have also been other developments in hydrogen-powered cars and vehicles. In June 2021, the Mayor of London announced the launch of a fleet of 20 double-decker buses, all powered by hydrogen.
The UK Hydrogen Strategy was published by HM Government in August 2021, citing an ‘ambition for a thriving hydrogen economy’ by 2030.
How do Hydrogen Cars Work?
In the way they are powered, hydrogen cars aren’t significantly different to an electric car. Instead of drawing energy from being charged up, and accessing the national grid, as you’d expect, it uses hydrogen as its energy source.
Hydrogen cars use fuel cell technology to convert chemical energy into electricity. With hydrogen powered cars, the fuel cells convert the mix of hydrogen and oxygen, taken from ambient air, into the electricity that drives the electric motor and activates and powers the wheels. Like EVs, hydrogen cars have a small lithium battery to store the energy that’s converted.
The driving range of hydrogen cars is model-specific. General estimates are that hydrogen fuel cell cars are capable of a range of at least 300 miles, though it will be interesting to see how model development proceeds in the next few years. Hydrogen cars are already quicker to refuel than electric cars when charging, and in the future may be able to go further, too.
Because they have no tailpipe emissions, hydrogen cars also qualify for the same type of government grants that are available for electric cars. You can read more about grants here.
What's the Future of Hydrogen Cars?
There is a future for hydrogen cars, but development won’t be immediate – and hydrogen cars won’t replace electric vehicles. Instead, hydrogen cars will, at some point, be available to complement electric cars and provide another driving option.
Recapping on the UK government’s UK Hydrogen Strategy, there is a clear focus on making progress over the next few years. The government’s target is to produce 5GW of clean hydrogen by 2030.
But, while hydrogen is the cleanest fuel available, and the most abundant resource on earth – produced by natural gas, solar power, wind power, nuclear power and biogas – there are challenges harnessing it to use in cars. Processing it takes time. Hydrogen gas has to be extracted, compressed, then mixed with oxygen to convert it to the electricity needed to power a car. That process isn’t as efficient as simply charging an EV to power up a battery.
The infrastructure in the UK is also currently significantly smaller than it needs to be for mass adoption of driving hydrogen cars. There are very few hydrogen filling stations in the country. At the time of writing, according to the UKH2 mobility website, there are only 12 Hydrogen Refuelling Stations (HRS) in England and Scotland and these are widely spread out with some regions – including the south, south west and east, as well as Wales – having no HRS at all. Obviously, that number has to increase rapidly in the coming years to give hydrogen cars a genuine future.
Does BMW have a hydrogen car?
BMW has been developing a hydrogen car, the SUV BMW iX5 Hydrogen, mentioned earlier in this piece. After intensive research and development, BMW has more than doubled the fuel cell’s continuous output in the BMW iX5 Hydrogen’s second-generation fuel cell. Weight and size have decreased ‘dramatically’ BMW say. Two hydrogen tanks, fuel cell and an electric engine have been integrated into the BMW X5’s existing architecture.
Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG, commented:
As a versatile energy source, hydrogen has a key role to play on the road to climate neutrality. It will also gain substantially in importance as far as personal mobility is concerned.
We think hydrogen-powered vehicles are ideally placed technologically to fit alongside battery-electric vehicles and complete the electric mobility picture.
An official release date for the BMW iX5 Hydrogen has yet to be confirmed but a small number could be launched for testing by the end of 2022.