Hydrogen cars: powered by air and the only emission is water

All you need to know about hydrogen fuel cell cars. How to buy, where to fill up and running costs

Nick Gibbs BuyaCar team
Mar 24, 2017

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are the missing link between the cleanliness of an electric vehicle (EV) and the no-hassle, go-anywhere range of a regular car with a petrol or diesel engine.

You can fill up the tank like a regular car, drive for 300 or miles or so, then spend five minutes filling it up again if you have to go further. But instead of potentially harmful gases escaping from the tailpipe, the only waste product is pure water. Sounds great, doesn’t it? So what’s the catch?

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Can I buy a hydrogen car?

You can, just about. There are two companies offering hydrogen powered cars in the UK: Toyota and Hyundai. Neither are cheap.

If you were to offer hard cash, Toyota's hydrogen car, the Mirai, would cost £61,500 after the £4,500 low-emission vehicle government grant, while the Hyundai iX35 FCEV (fuel-cell electric vehicle, above) would set you back £53,105.

Not that either company will let you buy them outright. You have to lease instead. The Toyota costs £750 a month including all fuel and servicing, while Hyundai wouldn’t disclose its monthly figure. You can lease them as a private individual but the handful of cars on the road (Toyota sold 27 by the end of 2016) are mainly operated by companies.

The London taxi firm Green Tomato Cars has two of the Mirai for example. Toyota also won’t lease you one if it’s not convinced you’ve got good access to one of the handful of public hydrogen filling stations in the UK. See below for details of where you can fill up.

There should be more cars to buy in the future. Honda has started leasing small number of its FCV Clarity cars (above). Audi has shown a prototype hydrogen-powered SUV called the h-tron quattro (below). Mercedes, BMW and VW also have ongoing fuel-cell development programmes.

A Welsh-based company, Riversimple, has also produced a prototype hydrogen car called the Rasa, which is designed to be light, efficient and cheap. It plans to build a four-seat version and a van, but this depends on the company attacting enough investment.

For zero emissions cars that you can buy today, see the best electric cars on sale

Where can I fill up a hydrogen car?

Hydrogen filling stations work much like petrol stations. You drive up, attach the fuel hose and fill the tank.

But the network is tiny right now. In February this year, the first motorway services filling station opened on a Shell forecourt on the M25 in Cobham, Surrey. It produces hydrogen on-site, and is designed to use surplus electricity from wind farms that is not needed when generated. It joined four other sites in London, one in Swindon, Wiltshire and another in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

Shell plans to open another two filling stations in Britain and the government has announced £23m-worth of funding that is meant to increase the number of filling stations and kickstart sales of hydrogen vehicles. A government-funded consortium called UKH2Mobility, which is pressing for greater use of hydrogen as a road fuel, says that there are plans for 65 filling stations by 2020 and 1,150 by 2030. 

In contrast, we currently have around 8,490 regular filling stations in the UK, according to the latest figures from the UK Petroleum Industry Association. Clearly, finding the fuel to put in your hydrogen car will remain a problem for some years yet, even in the most optimistic scenario.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Fuel-cell cars are essentially electric cars in which the electricity is generated on board via a chemical process.

This happens in the fuel-cell ‘stack’ where oxygen from the air around us and hydrogen from a storage tank in the car are mixed in such a way as to release electrons from the hydrogen.

This electricity is used to power an electric motor. The reaction prodces water, which is channeled away outside the car. The power produced is roughly similar to standard combustion-engined car, so the Hyundai has an 136 horsepower (hp) electric motor while the Mirai produces 155hp.


How much does a hydrogen car cost to run?

Toyota claims the range of the Mirai (above) is 340 miles from the 5kg of gas held in the tanks (gas is measured in kg rather than litres). When we spoke to a Mirai taxi driver, he said he was getting around 280 miles on a tank, or less when it’s cold.

With hydrogen costing around 10kg, the cost of a fill-up is around £50. That’s 18p a mile based on real-world figures, compared to the 2p per mile estimated for electric cars. However the cost of hydrogen is likely to come down the more is produced.


Is hydrogen really going to be fuel of the future?

The £23m of government funding, announced in March, is expected to provide some of the facilities needed for hydrogen cars to be a viable option for normal car drivers.

"We know availability of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure can be a potential obstacle to the take up of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles," said John Hayes, a transport minister. "That’s why we’re providing support to give interested parties the confidence to continue to invest in this new emerging technology to help us achieve our ambition for almost all new cars and vans to be zero emission by 2040."

Car manufacturers are split, though. In the ‘pro’ camp, Toyota is extremely confident. Its European CEO Johan Van Zyl recently declared the Mirai to be the new Prius and said it was inevitable we’ll eventually switch to using the fuel.

“We forsee EVs for short journeys, hybrids for all-round usage and fuel-cells for medium to long-range driving. But we see hydrogen as the long-term solution,” he said back in June this year.

Toyota believes hydrogen is the fuel of the future partly because it can be made using energy from the wind and sun. This effectively stores that energy for later use. At the moment, electricity from solar and wind must be used straight away, whether it's needed or not.

Fuel-cells are already powering other devices. Some submarines use hydrogen for example, as do the fork-lift trucks operating in BMW’s SUV factory in Spartanburg, US.

Hyundai can afford to build expensive fuel-cell cars partly because it can use the technology throughout its vast industrial empire to power boats, buses and submarines. However other makers aren’t convinced, citing the huge cost of the fuel-cell stacks themselves and the difficulty in persuading fuel firms and governments to invest the vast network of filling stations needed.

“My personal opinion is that hydrogen is tomorrow’s technology and always will be,” said Andy Palmer, currently CEO of Aston Martin and previously a top executive at electric-car advocate Nissan.


Are hydrogen cars safe?

Whatever the questions surrounding hydrogen, the one concerning safety has largely been answered. Every year around 2000 tonnes are safely transported on UK roads, according to UKH2Mobility, and if it does leak it quickly rises upwards and thins out because it's lighter than the air around us.

Toyota said it designed the Mirai to be as safe as possible, with sensors to shut off the tanks’ valves if leaks are detected. The car itself has been to direct crash forces away from the tanks, it said.


Are hydrogen cars really ‘green’?

One drawback of hydrogen is that it uses more energy to make than it subsequently delivers. This is also true of electricity, but both are good energy carriers and that’s their key appeal as a road fuel.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel in that cars that use it aren’t chucking out the same tailpipe pollutants as diesel or petrol equivalents, but its ability to cut CO2 does depend on what fuel is being used generating the electricity needed to create it in the first place.

Hydrogen production is well paired with renewable energy however, which might go to waste otherwise, for example from windfarms at night.

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