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Hydrogen cars: what you need to know

Got a question about hydrogen cars? Here you can find out what is a hydrogen car, how hydrogen cars work and how and where you can refuel a hydrogen car.

What is a hydrogen car?

A hydrogen car is one powered using hydrogen as its main energy source, as opposed to petrol, diesel or electricity. Hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe and on earth is found most prominently in water.

Hydrogen cars are often called FCVs, or Fuel Cell Vehicles. Like electric cars, they are considered zero-emission vehicles, so qualify for all the same Government subsidies and discounts.

The most common way hydrogen is gathered is by using a process called electrolysis to extract it from water.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Traditional petrol and diesel combustion engines explode their fuel in cylinders, pushing pistons up and down in order to create movement. Electric cars, meanwhile, have electric motors which turn the wheels, powered solely by large onboard batteries.

Hydrogen cars are similar to electric cars, in that they have electric motors turning their wheels and a small battery to store some electricity on the side.

But, rather than getting all their power from their battery, hydrogen cars have what’s called a hydrogen fuel cell which fuses hydrogen stored onboard in a tank as gas at high pressure, with oxygen from outside to produce electricity and turn the car’s wheels. The only other byproducts are heat and water, the latter leaving the car via a traditional exhaust pipe.

So, at low speeds, a hydrogen car can run on electricity from its battery alone, but at higher speeds its fuel cell kicks in to power the wheels as well as charge the battery back up again.

It’s easier to think of hydrogen cars as electric cars, then, but rather than waiting for them to charge a charge point, you simply fill their tanks with hydrogen gas at a filling station in a similar time to filling your car with petrol or diesel.

And in that short time you’ll get 300-400 miles of range, which is far better than an electric car can manage in the same charging time. Bare in mind, though, that it’ll cost you much more to fill with hydrogen than it will electricity.

Are hydrogen cars safe?

Hydrogen cars go through the same stringent testing procedures as any other type of car. The tanks where the hydrogen is stored are reinforced so you don’t need to worry about the hydrogen escaping and exploding like the Hindenburg. When Toyota was testing the strength of its hydrogen tanks, they shot them with high-velocity rifles but couldn’t make enough damage to cause a leak.

Where are hydrogen filling stations in the UK?

The trouble is, while there are thousands of petrol and diesel pumps and a rapidly increasing number of electric charging points in the UK, there are very few hydrogen filling stations.

In fact, there are only currently around 15 across the UK, the majority of which are around London. Scotland and the north of England are very poorly serviced, and the south-west has none at all.

As such, you’ll need to do your research online as to whether you live near a filling station before committing to running one every day. There are plenty of tools available that’ll show you on a map where they are right now and which are planned for the future.

Which hydrogen cars can I buy?

Because the UK Government hasn’t yet got behind hydrogen fuelling – and hence neither have many car manufacturers, the choice of hydrogen cars in the UK is small. In fact, it’s two.

Leading the charge are Hyundai and Toyota. Both are five-door family car-sized models, the Hyundai Nexo capable of around 400 miles of range and the Toyota Mirai 300 miles. Sadly, both cost in excess of £60,000 to buy, even after any grants.

But, there’s evidence that other manufacturers are becoming more interested. Audi showed off its h-tron large SUV concept at the 2016 Detroit motor show, while Mercedes revealed its own SUV GLC F-Cell late in 2018 and it’s currently on sale in Germany. Sadly, it won’t be coming to the UK.