What is a hydrogen fuel cell car?

Last updated April 30, 2021

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are touted by some as the future of motoring. Yet, despite being powered by the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen-powered vehicles are yet to take off, with only around 7500 hydrogen car sales worldwide in 2019. In this article, we take a look at how hydrogen fuel cell cars work and discuss their pros and cons.

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How do hydrogen fuel cell cars work?

A hydrogen fuel cell car is an electric car powered by a series of chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen as opposed to running off energy that’s stored in a battery. As fuel cell technology is rapidly developing, there are different types of hydrogen fuel cell cars being produced.

What they all have in common is that they combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with a by-product of water. They also generally tend to feature innovative air filters that clean polluted air as it’s drawn in by the car’s movement.

How much do hydrogen fuel cell cars cost?

While they’re currently relatively expensive to buy, mainly because of their use of rare metals, there are incentives available that align with the government’s target to replace petrol and diesel cars with greener alternatives. As with most things, it’s also likely that the more hydrogen-powered cars are invested in and popularised, the more costs will fall. New technology is generally most expensive in the early stages as demand is low and costs tend to fall as demand increases and the scale of production grows.

In terms of the current cost of hydrogen fuel cell cars, there are only a couple of models available on the UK market to look at. Those include the Toyota Mirai with a £65,000 price tag and the Hyundai Nexo, which costs £68,000.

Advantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars

One advantage of hydrogen cars compared to battery-powered electric vehicles is that they can be refilled relatively quickly with enough hydrogen to travel 300-500 miles. Like other electric vehicles, fuel cell cars employ an idle-off feature, which shuts down the fuel cell at stop signs or in traffic, saving energy. Regenerative braking is also used in certain driving modes, capturing lost energy and charging the battery.

Fuel cell cars may expedite the incorporation of hydrogen power on a broader scale. Because hydrogen can be produced on-site rather than being transported like fuel or supplied through the grid like electricity, production can start locally before working its way out to other areas, such as homes and businesses.

Disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars

Despite the convenience of not having to charge the battery for hours at a time, the current number of hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK is minimal. More stations may be built if hydrogen cars become part of a broader hydrogen economy.

Some critics also argue a further drawback is that hydrogen generation vehicles can be harmful to the environment. At present, electricity is required to generate hydrogen, which fuel cell cars run on. This electricity will be created by another source, which may be powered by fossil fuels. However, as the power grid in the UK moves towards generating electricity from renewable sources, such as solar, wind and hydro-power, the hydrogen generation process should become more eco-friendly overall.