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How do hydrogen fuel cell cars work and what are their benefits?

Plug-in batteries aren't the only option when it comes to zero-emission transport

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With the huge popularity of Tesla, and the dozens of other electric cars now on sale, it's easy to forget that plug-in batteries aren't the only option when it comes to zero-emission transport. Hydrogen cars exist too — vehicles you can buy now and put right in your garage, some that start at just $35,000.

While these cars represent a tiny fraction of the sales commanded by plug-in electric vehicles (which in turn are a small slice of total vehicle sales), manufacturers remain positive about the potential hydrogen-powered electric cars might have.

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This month alone, Jaguar Land Rover announced plans to develop hydrogen-powered vehicles, with SUVs potentially on the road by 2030, and startup Hyperion revealed a hydrogen-powered supercar concept with a claimed range of 1,000 miles.

Both are still a very long way from mass-production, but the two companies join Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes, BMW and General Motors, who are all involved in the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles. In the case of Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, they are selling such cars in the U.S. right now.

Battery-electric cars have taken an early lead in the race for transportation without tailpipe emissions, but hydrogen-electric vehicles have some key advantages, and are predicted by some to be the eventual winner.

How do hydrogen cars work?

First, let us explain the naming convention for these vehicles. Electric cars powered by batteries, like those from Tesla, are called Battery Electric Vehicles, or BEV. Electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are known as Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles, or FCEV.

These shouldn't be confused with battery-powered hybrids, which use both a plug-in battery and an internal combustion engine. These are split into two types, those that plug in to charge, which are known as Plug In Electric Vehicles, or PHEV, and those that charge using kinetic energy and the engine, known as mild hybrid electric vehicles, or MHEV.

Battery electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles both use electric motors, and broadly feel the same to drive. However, where the former gets its power from a battery pack that is plugged in and charged up, the latter employs an onboard fuel cell which uses hydrogen to create electricity to power the motor. Instead of charging a battery by plugging it in, the hydrogen tank is refilled using a pump at a refueling station.

Hyundai Nexo hydrogen fuel-cell car Hyundai Nexo hydrogen fuel-cell carHyundai

Where electric batteries tend to take an hour or more to charge (although speed varies depending on the type of battery and charger), fuel cell vehicles have their hydrogen tank filled in a similar time it takes to refill a gas tank with petrol or diesel.

Once filled with hydrogen, fuel cell vehicles use reverse electrolysis, where hydrogen reacts with oxygen (taken from ambient air) in the fuel cell. This reaction creates electricity to drive the motor; the only byproducts are heat and water, which is emitted from the tailpipe as water vapor.

Some fuel cell vehicles power the motor directly from electricity produced by reverse electrolysis, while others store this energy in a battery then use that to drive the motor. However, these batteries are much smaller (and therefore lighter) than the batteries used by plug-in electric vehicles. Like plug-in vehicles and hybrids, fuel cell cars can create electricity by harvesting kinetic energy lost during braking and coasting, then feed it back into the battery.

Are there any hydrogen-powered vehicles for sale in 2020?

Yes, and some have been around for several years already. The Toyota Mirai is arguably the most well-known hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, and is now in its second generation. With a 312-mile range using the EPA test cycle, the Mirai takes five minutes to refuel, and its drivetrain comes with a 10-year or 150,000-mile warranty.

The 2020 Mirai is priced at a not-inconsiderate $58,550, but can be leased for just under $400 a month.

An alternative fuel cell car is the 2020 Honda Clarity, which has a list price of $35,000. This has a range of 360 miles, also refuels in around five minute, has Apple CarPlay, and uses the same HondaLink connected car app as other Honda vehicles.

The third fuel-cell car currently sold in the U.S. is the Hyundai Nexo, which has a list price of $58,735 but can be leased for $379 per month with a $2,999 deposit. The Nexo has a range of 380 mile, the most of any hydrogen car currently sold in the U.S., but it is currently only available in California.

What are the pros and cons of hydrogen-powered cars?

Just like battery electric cars, fuel cell vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions (other than water vapor, in their case) and are quieter than their internal-combustion relatives. They also impressive strong low-speed performance, as their electric motors also produce maximum torque instantly. However, where battery-powered cars are still fairly slow at charging, a hydrogen tank can be refilled from a roadside pump in under five minutes.

Hydrogen vehicles also have a longer range than battery-powered cars, and are comparable in this regard to their petrol- or diesel-powered equivalents. They are also not constantly burdened with a large and heavy battery pack, which in some cases can weigh over 1,000 pounds regardless of how much energy it contains.

But there are also many important negative points for hydrogen-powered cars to overcome. They are expensive, as the market is still a long way off benefitting from the economies of scale that battery-powered vehicle makers are just starting to enjoy. Much of this high cost comes from hydrogen vehicles' need for platinum, which is the best catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells. There is also the issue that hydrogen has mass and needs to be transported to fuel stations, unlike electricity.

These costs should go down as hydrogen vehicle sales increase, but currently they face the same chicken-and-egg problem endured for years by the plug-in electric car: A lack of infrastructure.

Just as electric car buyers were once put off by a lack of charging options, potential hydrogen vehicle buyers find themselves in an even worse position. Hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. are currently measured in the dozens, with clusters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but none at all in most states. According to h2stations.org, there is just one in all of Texas, one in Colorado and one in Arizona. Canada has just three stations, and by the end of 2019 California had around 40.

This has the potential to change – look how many charging stations have sprung up all over the world in the last few years – but it may well take a 'Tesla moment' but this growth to happen. Until consumers start buying hydrogen vehicles, there will be little incentive for industry to plough money into creating a comprehensive fueling network. It may well take a manufacturer to create its own network, like Tesla did, to break this deadlock and accelerate vehicle sales.

Honda Clarity fuel-cell car Honda Clarity fuel-cell carHonda

How much does it cost to refuel a hydrogen car?

Hydrogen is currently more expensive than electricity and gasoline. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, hydrogen is most commonly priced at $13.99 per kg, which on a price-per-energy basis is equivalent to $5.60 per gallon of gasoline, or $0.21 per mile.

To help offset this high cost, car manufacturers are currently offering three years of free hydrogen, worth up to $15,000, with every new fuel cell car purchased.

It is hoped this incentive will encourage more drivers to buy fuel-cell vehicles, in the same way Tesla offered free Supercharger use to early adopters, and then ended the practice as more people purchases these cars.. The California Fuel Cell Partnership believes hydrogen could fall to between $8 and $10 per kg by 2025, meaning running costs of about $0.12 per mile, undercutting $3.50-per-gallon gasoline by a cent.

Fuel cell station map by H2Stations.org Fuel cell station map by H2Stations.orgH2Stations.org

What is the future of hydrogen vehicles?

For now, it is very hard to say. But car manufacturers seem quietly confident that, once battery power has acted as a stepping stone to move the industry away from gasoline and diesel, hydrogen will become the long-term answer.

Toyota, Honda and Hyundai show no signs of leaving the market, while BMW plans to put a hydrogen-powered X5 SUV on sale in 2022, followed by hydrogen versions of the X6 and X7.

Jaguar Land Rover plans to reveal its first hydrogen concepts by the middle of this decade. The company then hopes to offer hydrogen-powered models of Land Rover and Range Rover by 2030, believing the technology makes more sense than heavy batteries when applied to larger vehicles. Mercedes sells the hydrogen-powered GLC F-Cell, albeit only in Germany for now, and the PSA Group has said it will launch a fuel-cell powered van in 2021.

Startups are also interested in fuel-cell technology, with U.S.-based Nikola currently developing its Badger pickup truck and its own Tesla-style hydrogen fueling network. Nikola claims the truck could have a range of 600 miles, but for now isn't saying when it plans to put the $60,000 vehicle on sale.

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