What Is a Hydrogen Car?

What Is a Hydrogen Car?

While electric vehicles suck up most of the air in the conversation around sustainable transport, you might have also heard about hydrogen-powered vehicles. That is, instead of petrol or electricity, a vehicle that’s powered by hydrogen.

But how do hydrogen-powered vehicles work? Will we ever see them on the roads in Australia? Here are your questions about hydrogen cars answered.

What is a hydrogen car?

Hydrogen cars are basically what they say on the tin: they’re cars that use hydrogen as their fuel source.

Now, while it seems simple, this requires a bit of explanation on its own. Hydrogen is a gaseous element that’s powerful enough to be a fuel source. The element can be harnessed in powering other modes of transport, like buses, fleets of trucks and cars.

To power a vehicle, hydrogen is pumped into the tank, in either a liquid or gaseous form, which is then converted into electricity that the vehicle uses to run. The only byproduct is water, which leaves via the exhaust. This is the method that powers current hydrogen car developments, however, burning hydrogen as a diesel or petrol replacement is also possible (but is even more early in development, and also involves burning nitrogen oxides in the oil to ignite the fuel).

Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Hiace van prototype, which has a petrol motor that burns hydrogen fuel. Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

While it’s still very much in its early days, the research and enthusiasm is certainly there. in Melbourne, a hydrogen truck factory is in the works, that will service fleets of trucks over the coming years. Moreover, a hydrogen car manufacturer is set to build hydrogen-powered equipment and fuel cells in Australia, including a ute.

Overseas, there are only two hydrogen cars available: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, and although these cars can be found in Australia, they’re only available in specific roles.

Can I buy a hydrogen car in Australia?

Not yet. As Cars Guide explains, not only are there very few hydrogen fuelling stations in Australia, but hydrogen vehicles aren’t available to customers outside of fleet sales and loans. The ACT government has bought 20 hydrogen cars for its government fleet, but that’s about it for the moment. The Victorian government is in the midst of researching hydrogen fuel stations at the moment, but no massive announcements have been made.

How do hydrogen cars compare to electric cars?

While electric vehicles have become widely available across Australia and the rest of the world (excluding supply constraints) hydrogen vehicles aren’t exactly commonplace just yet.

When it comes to fuel, things get a bit dissimilar. Electric vehicles require many minutes to fully recharge, whereas hydrogen vehicles can refuel within just a few minutes, as they’re refuelled through similar means to a petrol vehicle.

On this note, because hydrogen cars use said element, fuel can be stored in either a liquid or gaseous form, enhancing how you can keep a backup fuel source. This part of the equation makes hydrogen cars certainly an attractive proposition, as storing electricity is a massive problem for both the electric vehicle and the renewable energy markets.

In terms of costs, both types of vehicles are fairly expensive, but costs should come down as they become more mainstream. It’s difficult to compare costs at the moment, with so few hydrogen vehicles available in other markets. Refuelling a hydrogen vehicle is more expensive at the moment, but this should drop as the technology becomes more developed.

Hydrogen vehicle range

The two hydrogen vehicles that exist in overseas markets at the moment (the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai) have fairly decent range expectations, compared to some of the highest range EVs.

The Hyundai Nexo is capable of about 610 kilometres travel on a full tank, whereas the Toyota Mirai is capable of about 650 kilometres.

This puts them in the ballpark of some petrol vehicles and larger battery EVs in terms of range.

Are hydrogen vehicles better for the environment than EVs?

Not really. As Tom Baxter puts it, 96 per cent of hydrogen worldwide is created by using energy sourced from fossil fuels. This is similar to EVs being powered off the grid, ergo still using fossil fuels.

Unless the creation of hydrogen comes from renewable energy sources (such as wind or solar power) then it’s really about as good for the environment as an EV, arguably worse considering the extra effort that needs to go into the creation of said hydrogen. If the hydrogen in your vehicle is created using renewable energy sources, then it’s better for the environment than an EV that is using power from the grid.

Will we ever see hydrogen cars on the road in Australia?

We might see hydrogen vehicles on Australian roads at some point in the future, however while refuelling stations are rare across the country and while there aren’t that many hydrogen-powered vehicles available in overseas markets, we could be some years away before this happens.

That being said, with car and truck manufacturing in mind, hydrogen vehicles are highly likely to have a future in Australia, especially with the Future Fuels Program taking a serious look at the possibilities.

Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

Want more Aussie car news? Here’s every EV we’ve reviewed in the last two years, all the EVs we can expect down under soon, and our guide to finding EV chargers across the country. Check out our dedicated Cars tab for more. This article has been updated since it was first published.

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