Are hydrogen fuel cell cars the future?

► The viability of hydrogen cars
► Pipe dream or The Next Big Thing?
► We look at fuel cells and H2 cars

As the electric revolution redrawing the automotive map gathers pace, you’d be forgiven for thinking that electric vehicles (EVs) had won the argument – and gasoline/diesel combustion engines had lost. In reality, it’s not quite such a binary discussion. Life is rarely black and white.

Some automakers believe hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could secure a place in the new, more fragmented automotive future. The same is true for synthetic biofuels, hybrids, autogas and other powertrains, as engineers explore multiple technologies in an effort to balance decarbonization with consumer needs.

In this article, we discuss the feasibility of hydrogen cars and examine some of the opportunities and barriers to their widespread adoption. It asks the question: are fuel cell cars the future?

Explanation: how hydrogen cars work

How viable are hydrogen cars?

Hydrogen fuel cells for automobiles have been around for decades and have long been caught in a chicken-and-egg situation. Can they launch before a valid infrastructure is ready? Or should a network of hydrogen fueling pumps be deployed first, paving the way for widespread demand?

Long-time readers of CAR magazine know the arguments around hydrogen in the automotive firmament. Our supplement The Car In The Future addressed the viability of H2 cars as early as the summer of 1990:

After sampling a hydrogen-powered BMW 7 Series prototype in Munich, our correspondent Roger Bell called it fair: “Hydrogen power isn’t just around the corner.” Thirty years later, we still do not know if the revolution is imminent or far away.

Fuel cell cars you can buy today

Fast forward three decades and there are just two hydrogen cars on sale in the UK today – a pair of fuel cell models aimed at business users who may have hydrogen in the hold of their arrangement.

The Toyota Mirai retails from £49,995 while the Hyundai Nexo (below) costs £69,495. Such high prices might explain why they haven’t taken off yet, but many manufacturers persist in developing fuel cell vehicles and believe their myriad benefits are worth pursuing in a multi-fuel future.

Hyundai Nexo: one of two hydrogen cars on sale in 2022

Hydrogen fuel cells are, fundamentally, electric cars – it’s just a matter of how they store their energy on board where they differ from pure EVs. Here are the pros and cons of the H2 Brigade:

Advantages

  • Clean exhaust emissions (only emissions are water)
  • Ability to refuel as quickly as a petrol or diesel car
  • Potentially longer range than current battery technology allows
  • Avoids the need for heavy and bulky batteries on board
  • Proven technology, mechanically simple

Disadvantages

This last point is fundamental and often overlooked in the fuels debate: how hydrogen is created dictates its cleanliness. Get ready to dust off your scientific rainbow as we consider ‘brown hydrogen’ (created by the gasification of coal or lignite), ‘grey hydrogen’ (produced by steam methane reforming at using natural gas), “blue hydrogen” (steam methane reforming, cleaned by carbon capture and storage) and “green hydrogen” (made by electrolysis of water powered by renewable energy) .

Is hydrogen the future of cars?  A hydrogen production facility in Israel (Getty Images)

The discussion around automotive hydrogen becomes more compelling when green hydrogen is on the table. A new £240m Net Zero Hydrogen Fund (NZHF) government fund is being set up to promote low-carbon hydrogen production in Britain.

Will hydrogen fuel cells ever take off?

Many Western countries would need to radically pivot their energy supply to make hydrogen a viable mass transportation fuel. The UK does not have enough infrastructure today to enable widespread adoption, but this could change given long-term investment and guidance from government and industry.

The UK Hydrogen Strategy was published in the summer of 2021, setting out the government’s target to produce 5GW of clean hydrogen by 2030. A hydrogen economy that supported H2 for some specific tasks – such as powering the transport sector, some buses, automobiles and even domestic boilers – is on the cards as Britain prepares to hit net zero by 2050.

Refueling a Toyota Mirai at one of 11 hydrogen refueling stations in the UK

The white paper outlines the future of hydrogen in the UK: “We expect the role of hydrogen in transport to evolve over the 2020s and beyond. To date, road transport has been one of the first major markets for hydrogen in the UK. Going forward, we predict that hydrogen vehicles, especially depot transport, including buses, will make up the bulk of the mobility sector’s hydrogen demand for the 2020s. fuel cell have a range similar to their diesel counterparts. Return-to-depot operation means that the hydrogen refueling infrastructure can be more centralized and is likely to be compatible with the distributed hydrogen production planned during this period.

But what about hydrogen cars? Or is the H2 only going to power utility vehicles?

Politicians predict that hydrogen will focus on heavy trucks. “We will undertake a range of research and innovation activities that will focus on hard-to-decarbonise transport modes, such as heavy road freight. As we demonstrate and understand these applications on a larger scale, we are likely to see greater diversity in transportation end uses in the late 2020s and early 2030s. By 2030, we project that hydrogen will be used in a range of transport modes, including heavy goods vehicles, buses and rail, as well as early uses in commercial shipping and aviation. Our analysis shows that there could be up to 6 TWh of low-carbon hydrogen demand in transport in 2030.”

Tellingly, even the government’s white paper does not foresee widespread adoption among passenger car users. But that won’t stop more enlightened automakers globally from doing their best.

You just have to hope that the policymakers shaping the country’s infrastructure are on the same page as the industrialists planning the next generation of cars.

To learn more about hydrogen cars

How do hydrogen cars work?

The UK government’s hydrogen strategy

BMW’s take on the hydrogen car

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