What Are Hydrogen Fuel Cars? Are They A Real Possibility?

We look at what hydrogen fuel cars are all about...

Electric cars have become hugely popular as of late. New registrations of plug-in cars have increased to more than 125,000 by the end of November 2017 and 126,000 electric vehicles were registered in 2017. So it’s safe to say the electric car market is growing.

Now everyone knows how electric cars work, they work with a battery. However, there is a new type of electric car that could be coming to the market soon. We’re talking about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

First coming to prominence at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota unveiled a concept car that ran on a hydrogen fuel cell.

So what are hydrogen fuel cars? And are they a real possibility for the future?

In this article, we look at what hydrogen fuel cell cars are and whether we’ll be seeing them on British roads in the future.

What are hydrogen fuel cars?

Unlike conventional cars that use petrol or diesel or standard electric car that uses an electric battery, a hydrogen fuel car uses hydrogen gas to power an electric motor.

They do this by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which in turn runs the motor. Because they are powered by electricity they count as EV’s (electric vehicles) but their refuelling process is similar to that of conventional vehicles.

How does a hydrogen fuel cell car work?

A fuel cell car is like a cross between an internal-combustion engine and battery power. They make power by using hydrogen gas that then fuses chemically with oxygen in the air to make water. When this happens, electricity is released and used to power an electric motor.

What happens in the fuel cell is an electrochemical reaction. A fuel cell has three parts;

  • A positively charged terminal
  • A negatively charged terminal
  • A separating chemical (an electrolyte) in between the two

And here’s how it creates electricity;

  • Hydrogen gas from the tank goes down the pipe to the positive terminal
    • This positive terminal is made of platinum which acts as a catalyst. The atoms in the hydrogen split into protons and electrons
  • Oxygen from the air comes down the second pipe to the negative terminal
  • The protons are attracted to the negative terminal (because protons are positive) and travel through the electrolyte towards it
    • While this is happening, the electrons flow through the outer circuit and power the electric motor until they return to the negative terminal
  • The protons and electrons reunite in the negative terminal and combine with the oxygen from the air
  • This chemical reaction then creates water, which is given off from the exhaust pipe as water vapour or steam

Hopefully that wasn’t madly complicated, but you can watch a video below that helps explain it.

This will keep happening as long as there is hydrogen and oxygen to create energy. Of course, there’s plenty of oxygen in the air so it depends on how much hydrogen is in the tank.

How do you fill up a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?

So if the only limiting factor is how much hydrogen is in the tank, how do you fill up a hydrogen fuel car?

It’s pretty much the same way as you would if you were to fill up a conventional car. Pressurised hydrogen is sold at refuelling stations and you refuel the same way as you would if you were to fill up your car with petrol or diesel. The range of fuel cell cars vary but they are roughly the same as conventional cars so around 200-300 miles.

What is the difference between fuel cell cars and other electric vehicles?

Okay, so what’s the difference between the other electric vehicles and fuel cell cars?

Battery electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, run off an electric motor and battery. You charge them up and they run until the battery runs out of charge. You charge the car up at points either at your house (in your garage, for example) or in public places such as car parks or petrol stations.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles are a combination of conventional fuel powered vehicles and battery powered electric vehicles. The plug-in hybrid allows you to run on electricity for a certain amount of time before it then switches to fuel. You have to charge a plug-in hybrid and you can do this either at home or in a public place.

metalllic nissan leaf parked on tarmac with mirrors and modern building in the background

A hybrid vehicle also has a conventional engine and an electric motor. However, you only run on electricity at low speeds, such as below 30mph, then it switches to a conventional engine. You don’t have to charge a hybrid vehicle up as the combustion engine recharges the electric battery while the car is running.

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What are the pros and cons of fuel cell vehicles?

Like with everything, there are advantages and disadvantages to fuel cell vehicles.

Here are some of the advantages;

  • No other emissions apart from water vapour
    • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only create water vapour, they produce no emissions the same as other electric vehicles
  • You can refuel quickly
    • You can refuel a hydrogen vehicle in the same amount of time it takes for you to refuel a conventional fuel powered car. Battery powered electric cars take longer.
  • They have a long driving range
    • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can often travel further than battery powered electric cars and can often have a range of up to 300 miles. That said, battery powered electric vehicles are making advances in terms of range, so this might not stay true for long.
animated picture of a hydrogen fuel car being charged up at a hydrogen station

However, there are some disadvantages;

  • For hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be 100% emission free, the development of the engine has to be from renewable sources, otherwise it can cause quite the carbon footprint.
  • The infrastructure is limited
    • It took quite a long time for there to be enough charging points for electric cars, and there are few hydrogen fuelling stations about.
    • Of course, if they become more popular then this will change, but as it stands, the infrastructure is limited
  • They can be expensive
    • The price of electric cars has come down recently, but they are still pricey and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are quite expensive
    • Again, when they become more popular and the technology becomes more common then we’re sure this will change.

What hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are there on the market at the moment?

The most well-known hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the market is the Toyota Mirai. The Mirai was made available in the UK recently but only in limited numbers.

It’s a four-seater saloon and comes with an electric motor that provides 152bhp and can reach 62mph from rest in 9.6 seconds. It also has a top speed of 111mph. It has a range of 342 miles and will set you back about £66,000.

Are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles a possibility for the future?

After all that, are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for the future?

It’s hard to say. They are expensive, the technology hasn’t really been properly harnessed yet and there is a limited infrastructure for those who do have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Because the technology is so new, some people say that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are less efficient at the moment than battery powered electric vehicles are.

However, their long range and quick refuelling time makes them appealing. If the infrastructure is improved and there is a way to ensure that the development of these cars is as sustainable and as low in emissions as possible then there is no reason why they won’t become more popular.

It’s all still up in the air at the minute, and the technology is still very new. Therefore, it might be a while before they become a common sight on our roads. It took us a long time to get on board with electric cars, so we could be waiting a long time.

In conclusion, hydrogen fuel cell cars work almost like a conventional fuel powered car, but using hydrogen and oxygen to combine and power the car. They emit only water vapour. There are a few pros and cons to these types of cars, they have a quick refuelling time and have a long range. However, the infrastructure is limited and making them can create a lot of emissions which is sort of counterproductive. While there is research and development going into these vehicles, we don’t think they will be taking the UK by storm any time soon. If you’re interested in an electric vehicle, then we have a great range on offer. Call one of our vehicle experts today to find out your options.

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Andrew Kirkley

Andrew Kirkley

Director at OSV Ltd
Andrew enjoys: Movies and travelling to new cities to explore different cultures.

Andrew has been in the motor trade for over 20 years. What he enjoys most about his job is the team spirit and the dedication of his work colleagues. He also appreciates the teams input in the improvement of the company.
Andrew Kirkley

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1 Comment

  • Abraham Baccas| 26th January 2018 at 1:19 pm Reply

    Surely it makes sense to develop this technology, I can’t see any downside other than the cost of the infrastructure. They could put in hydrogen filling points at all the existing petrol stations, job done!

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