What is hydrogen power and how does it work?

Hydrogen is seen by many people as the future of car propulsion. But how does it actually work?

Toyota Mirai
Toyota Mirai

Though it’s clear to see that a lot of weight is being thrown behind battery-electric cars, hydrogen-electric power is seen by many as a real solution to many mobility problems. Just as clean as a regular electric car but somewhat quicker to ‘fill’, hydrogen could prove to be the ideal fuel for the future.

And though there are only two hydrogen-powered cars currently on sale in the UK – the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo – the fuel is rapidly gaining traction, with Hyundai recently pledging even more support for the fuel, particularly in the future of commercial vehicles. Let’s take a look at what else you need to know about hydrogen power.

So how does it actually work?

Toyota Mirai
A hydrogen fill up doesn’t take long at all

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Though it can feel like hydrogen power and conventional battery-electric cars are like chalk and cheese, the reality is that the two powertrains are quite similar. Both use an electric motor for propulsion and incorporate a battery, but in hydrogen cars, the latter is much smaller.

The reason? Well, it’s hooked up to a hydrogen fuel cell and storage tank which provide the energy. Hydrogen stored within the tank is fed into the fuel cell where it is mixed with oxygen and this then keeps the battery topped up. The emissions? Just water.

So is there a long time to wait when ‘filling’ an electric car?

Toyota Mirai
Filling a hydrogen car is quite similar to when refilling a petrol or diesel vehicle

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That’s one of the real benefits of hydrogen. Whereas you’ll spend a certain amount of time charging up an electric car – with even the very fastest chargers taking at least 25-30 minutes to take a car from five to 80 per cent – a full fill-up of hydrogen will take around the same time as a petrol or diesel car to top up.

And how many miles will you get from a fill-up?

Toyota Mirai
The fuel cell is where the hydrogen is converted into energy

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Hydrogen-powered vehicles return a decent range on a full tank. The new second-generation Toyota Mirai, for instance, has a claimed driving range of between 300 and 400 miles.

However, a team in France recently set a new record by travelling 623 miles on a single tank of hydrogen. Set in a Toyota Mirai, it smashed the previous record by 72 miles.

Does filling up with hydrogen cost significantly more than petrol or diesel?

Not really. A full fill-up of Toyota’s Mirai will cost around £60, or about the same as an average-sized petrol car.

Are there any safety concerns with hydrogen power?

Very few. In fact, during recent Euro NCAP safety tests, engineers paid particular attention to how the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai coped in a collision. However, they found that the hydrogen powertrain had no negative effect on the car’s overall safety and gave it a full five-star rating.

Are there many hydrogen filling stations in the UK?

At present, no. Currently, there are just 11 hydrogen filling stations in the UK, with the bulk of these located around London. The only location in the north of England is in Sheffield, but between here and the southern-based stations there’s a large blank area.

However, more stations are planned to alleviate this problem.

Are there more hydrogen models going on sale soon?

It’s true that, at present, choice is limited when it comes to hydrogen-powered cars. With just the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai on sale, it could be thought that manufacturers aren’t confident in the fuel. However, that’s not the case as more models are due to enter the market soon.

BMW is currently developing a hydrogen-powered version of its X5 – badged iX5 – while newcomer Genesis has also stated that it’ll be bringing a hydrogen car to market.

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