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Hydrogen Powered Cars in the UK

  Tuesday, 31 October 2023

Hydrogen molecules graphic

It was once predicted by the government that there could be 1.5 million hydrogen-powered cars in the UK by 2030. That is unlikely to happen now, but electric cars that run on hydrogen are a viable alternative to battery powered electric vehicles (BEVs) and may also be a greener option too.

With the sale of new petrol and diesel cars banned after 2035, EVs that run on lithium ion batteries are not the only choice for zero emission driving. In this guide we look at how a hydrogen-powered car works, what refuelling is like and what the future might hold for hydrogen-powered cars.

How many hydrogen powered cars are there in the UK?

The answer is, not many. In January 2023 it was reported that there were 300 hydrogen vehicles on the UK’s roads, but some of these were buses. There are only two models of hydrogen car currently available – the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo SUV. There are also fewer than 15 hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK.

So, in many ways it feels like the hydrogen vehicle sector is in a similar place as battery powered electric cars were 15-20 years ago – very much a new technology, with huge but undeveloped potential.

How does a hydrogen powered car work?

A hydrogen car works by being powered by a fuel cell, which takes oxygen from the air and combines it with hydrogen from a tank to create electricity. The hydrogen tanks are pressurised and only a small amount of hydrogen is required to produce a significant amount of energy. The only output from a hydrogen fuel cell car is water.

Are they better than electric cars?

There is an argument to say that hydrogen powered cars are better than BEVs. They are probably greener and cleaner, because they don’t require a lithium-ion battery. These batteries are the environmental Achilles heel of the BEV, hybrid and plug-in hybrid type of electric vehicle since they are sourced from non-renewable materials. It means that manufacturing a battery-powered EV generates two tonnes more CO2 emissions than an equivalent petrol or diesel vehicle.

You also don’t have to charge a hydrogen car up so often. A hydrogen powered car has a range of up to 400 miles, and can be fully charged in around five minutes, effectively as quickly as a petrol or diesel vehicle.

Can a hydrogen fuel cell explode?

Yes, it can. Hydrogen fuel cells are highly pressurised, and hydrogen is explosive if it leaks. There are misconceptions about the dangers of hydrogen, fuelled by images of the 1936 Hindenburg airship disaster. But research has shown that hydrogen did not explode during that fire, and the small amounts that would escape from a ruptured tank would probably dissipate into the air almost immediately. In reality hydrogen fuel cell tanks are probably just as safe as petrol tanks, and almost certainly safer than lithium-ion batteries.

What happened to the hydrogen car revolution?

Hydrogen fuelled cars were being lauded as a viable zero emissions option a decade ago. In 2013 the UK government published a wide-ranging study on the commercial future of hydrogen cars in the UK. It predicted that hydrogen cars could have a 50% share of the UK car market by 2050.

The Business Minister at the time, Michael Fallon, said that “hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles can make a significant contribution” to “the transition to ultra-low emission vehicles. Successful commercialisation of the technology will require Government to work in true partnership with industry.”

There were visions of a ‘hydrogen highway’, and 65 hydrogen filling stations were expected to meet the first wave of hydrogen hungry cars. But it never happened.

The focus turned fully onto battery powered EVs, and developing a charging infrastructure that today means there are more places in the UK to charge a BEV than a petrol or diesel car. Hydrogen refuelling stations are more expensive and logistically challenging to build than an electric charging point. Keeping them topped up with hydrogen would also entail tankers going up and down motorways, whereas electricity is delivered on demand.

What does the future hold for hydrogen fuel cell cars?

There seems to be little sign of hydrogen powered cars taking off in the UK anytime soon. The number of refuelling stations are actually going down, new annual registrations are numbered in single figures and manufacturers are not investing in the technology for passenger cars.

Where there may be a future is in larger vehicles or other forms of transport. Hydrogen is considered one of the leading clean fuels for the shipping and aeronautical industry, where long distances need to be covered on single charges. In terms of road transport, buses are already being powered using hydrogen.

Scrap your petrol or diesel car at ASM

While hydrogen powered cars may not be the future, zero emissions vehicles will be. Many vehicle owners in the UK may be interested in scrapping or recycling their used petrol or diesel car in favour of a greener alternative. At ASM Auto Recycling we provide vehicle dismantling and scrap metal processing services for recycling and car scrappage, allowing your vehicle to be dismantled safely. These can be recycled for used car parts that provide a cost-effective alternative for used car owners looking for replacement parts.

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