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What is a hydrogen car?

A hydrogen fuel-cell car may sound like science-fiction, but they're here and could form a major part of the motoring landscape in years to come

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Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) sit alongside electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrids in the world of electrified vehicles. However, they are less common with only two hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicles available right now: the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai NEXO SUV, with the Vauxhall Vivaro-e Hydrogen van expected to arrive in 2023. 

But, brands like BMW and Jaguar Land Rover have announced their plans to produce hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the near future. So while you might not see a hydrogen fuel-cell 'in the wild', more are on the way. Here, we explain exactly what a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is and they how work...

How does a hydrogen car work?

The key to a hydrogen car is the fuel cell. It can convert hydrogen into electricity, with the only byproducts being heat and water. Most hydrogen cars use polymer exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells; these consist of two electrodes.

The hydrogen is stored in the form of gas in compressed air tanks and forced into the fuel cell. There, it's broken up by the catalyst, forming electrons. These electrons are harnessed and used to power the electric motor. The remaining hydrogen molecules, when mixed with oxygen, turn to water.

So, while the lithium-ion batteries in a conventional electric car store electricity, the fuel cells in a hydrogen car convert hydrogen into electricity. Many hydrogen cars also feature lithium-ion batteries, which store the electricity that has been produced.

Hence, the key difference between an electric and a hydrogen car is then where the electricity comes from. For electric cars it comes from the grid. For hydrogen cars, it comes from the hydrogen. A key advantage hydrogen cars have over electric cars is a longer driving range – often 300 miles or more – and the fact that they can be refuelled in minutes rather than hours.

Why aren’t hydrogen cars more popular?

The above distinction also explains why hydrogen cars are still in their infancy. While electric cars can be plugged into the grid, hydrogen cars have to be refuelled at dedicated hydrogen filling stations.

While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it has to be harvested and processed, which is a costly and complex process. There are currently 11 operational hydrogen fuel stations in the UK. 

The lack of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure currently acts as a barrier to the widespread adoption of hydrogen-fuelled cars in the UK. However, the government did announce a £23 million fund to accelerate hydrogen-vehicle infrastructure and uptake back in 2017.

Can I buy a hydrogen car?

There are just a handful models to choose from. One is the Toyota Mirai – a hydrogen saloon car – while the other is the Hyundai NEXO, a large SUV. Both are very expensive, and you need to do your research before purchasing to make sure that there's a refuelling station near you.

BMW is working on a hydrogen-fuelled X5, Meanwhile Vauxhall and Renault plans to offer hydrogen-fuelled vans.

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