Hydrogen is considered a fuel of the future. So how do hydrogen-powered cars work and how will our new refueller station in Victoria work?

You’ve probably heard of electric vehicles. But have you heard of hydrogen-powered vehicles?

We’re building a new hydrogen refuelling station at our Clayton hub in Victoria. It’s like a petrol station, but for hydrogen-powered, zero-emission cars.

But how does a car actually run on hydrogen? And how does a hydrogen fuel cell work?

The most abundant element on Earth

Let’s start with the source. Hydrogen (H2) is a gas. It’s the most common element on Earth. And it contains a lot of chemical energy.

If you ignite hydrogen it will react with the oxygen in the air. It releases its energy by means of an explosion. But instead of an uncontrolled explosion, we can harness this energy safely within a hydrogen fuel cell. It’s the fuel cell that powers hydrogen cars.

How does a hydrogen-powered vehicle actually work?

The fuel cell is a device that takes chemical energy, in the form of hydrogen, and turns it into electricity that can power an electric motor, just like a battery. So, a hydrogen-powered car is powered with an electric motor.

How does it work? First, hydrogen stored in a tank (that is thick-walled and crash-tested, and usually under the rear seat) is mixed with air and pumped into the fuel cell. Inside the cell, a chemical reaction extracts electrons from the hydrogen.

The leftover hydrogen protons move across the cell and combine with oxygen from the air to produce water. Meanwhile the electrons create electricity, which charges a small storage battery used to power an electric drivetrain (just like in an electric vehicle). This is why the vehicles are called Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV), as compared to the battery electric vehicles (BEV) which are seen increasingly on our roads already.

The biggest difference between FCEV and BEVs  (like the Tesla car) is the source of electricity. Electric cars run on batteries charged electrically (even from solar panels). But hydrogen-powered cars produce their own electricity. They have their little power plant on board – that’s the fuel cell.

So, unlike a combustion engine, which produces carbon dioxide, the only end products of this hydrogen-powered reaction are electricity, water and heat. The only exhaust products are water vapour and warm air.

Photo of a hydrogen-powered car.

Toyota Mirai – Frontansicht (photo by M 93 via Wikipedia).

Hydrogen cars in Australia

Australia is looking to hydrogen as a new fuel source. There are several large-scale, demonstration and pilot projects underway. ‘Green hydrogen’ — hydrogen made without the use of fossil fuels — is a potential future fuel. It’s a clean energy source that can help us reach a net-zero emission future.

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel source in cars, trucks, ships, and even aircraft. Several companies are working on hydrogen vehicles. Currently, there are two car models in Australia – Toyota Mirai sedan (and the Mirari second generation) and the Hyundai Nexo SUV. While they’re not yet available to buy privately, they are available to lease. And how do you refuel that fuel tank? That’s where our hydrogen refueller comes in!

How do you refuel a hydrogen car?

A hydrogen refueller station looks a lot like a petrol station. In Germany, the US and other countries, hydrogen refuelling pumps are located at conventional petrol stations.

You fill it up like a petrol or diesel car. A hydrogen bowser has a pump with nozzle that clamps onto to the car. Once the seal has been made, the hydrogen gas starts filling the tank in the car. If the seal isn’t attached it won’t start pumping, ensuring there are no leakages.

Hydrogen refueller stations today can fill a typical hydrogen car tank in about five minutes. This is one advantage over battery powered cars, which can take a lot longer to charge.

Our new refueller station in Melbourne

We welcome Victorian Government funding for Swinburne University of Technology to establish the Victorian Hydrogen Hub (VH2). Under a partnership with Swinburne, CSIRO will receive $1 million towards the development of one of Australia’s first hydrogen refuelling stations on our site at Clayton.

The proposed hydrogen technology demonstration facility and hydrogen refuelling system.

The proposed hydrogen technology demonstration facility and hydrogen refuelling system.

The funding comes as part of a $10 million grant to Swinburne University of Technology (Swinburne) to work with us and establish the Victorian Hydrogen Hub (VH2).

Led by Swinburne, VH2 is designed to bring researchers, industry partners and businesses together to test, trial and demonstrate new and emerging hydrogen technologies. The station will be based at our Clayton site, a shared facility with Swinburne.

With this new funding, we will install a commercial hydrogen refuelling station on our Clayton site in Victoria. It will sit alongside an integrated hydrogen production and storage demonstration facility. Hydrogen will be stored on site and used as fuel for Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles.

Initially, a fleet of hydrogen vehicles will be available for CSIRO and our partners as a trial, and an example of ‘real world’ use. There is potential to expand to provide refuelling to other zero emission vehicle trials in the local area.

Driving forward with hydrogen in Australia

Clean hydrogen is already considered to be cost-competitive as a fuel for road transport. But one of the main barriers to greater market uptake is the lack of infrastructure supporting its use.

The new hydrogen refuelling station is a key step towards removing that barrier. It will be just one part of our emerging Hydrogen Industry Mission, which is helping Australia to de-risk hydrogen technology deployment and demonstrate emerging technology.

And, most important of all, it’s part of how we’re helping Australia transition to a net zero future.

17 comments

  1. I am intrigued. We have grey, brown, and blue hydrogen that are produced from carbon based sources – either coal or LNG. The by-products are CO and CO2. Carbon capture and storage works for this process so that we keep the H2. However carbon capture and storage doesn’t work for coal fired power stations. Green H2 is good as it comes from water – no CO or CO2 but we use some 7kg of water for a kg of H2. Say we have 5 million vehicles in Sydney using H2 – what then happens to the H2 after use? Does it recombine with O2 to make water – and how does that appear at the exhaust – water vapour or liquid water. How much? 5m x 7(kg) by say 2?=70m litres of water and vapour per day into that one city (if only 2 litres of H2 used per day per vehicle). What will that do to the climate of Sydney with increased humidity? Where does the water for the green H2 come from and where does all the produced water from grey, brown, blue or green H2 go in the end? Is there any need to consider re-use of that water?

    1. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) emit approximately the same amount of water per mile as vehicles using gasoline-powered internal combustion engines (ICEs).

      https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/water-emissions-fuel-cell-vehicles

  2. Hydrogen is the way to go – BEVs are never going to power large commercial transport vehicles. I think the technology is only being held back because of the amount of money invested in BEVs already! The big companies will change tack once they’ve had their moneys worth. (This is from a European perspective! Japan are well into hydrogen.)

    1. You have the story back to front. Governments worldwide are pouring huge sums of money into promoting hydrogen driven by the powerful fossil fuel lobby. 96% of hydrogen is manufactured using fossil fuels and in the process releasing 830 million tons of carbon dioxide. This hydrogen costs about $1 per ton. Green hydrogen cost about $4 per ton. The fossil fuel industry is promoting blue hydrogen where about 60 % of the carbon dioxide is captured and stored underground (CCS). CCS technology doubles the cost of the hydrogen but the technology is still unproven and is not sustainable since for every ton of carbon used 2.2 tons of carbon dioxide will need to be stored for eternity.

      1. 1. How does that amount of emissions compare to those emitted from all our cars, trucks, trains and buses using petrol and oil around the place? In other words, I realise it ain’t perfect, but we are not actually making much of an effort at stopping emission from petrol and diesel.
        Where are the subsidies for the purchase electric vehicles? Where is the removal of sales tax etc on electric vehicles?

        2. That coal in the ground has an enormous effect of how governments act..like the lady from Townsville said.
        They are not in favour of burning coal. They are simply in favour of people with jobs. We need to move any assembly plants, manufacturing etc to areas where coal has been king.
        If local jobs will be produced by any alternative power source then that will be a factor in favour of Government accepting the technology.

      2. By generating hydrogen through electrolysis when solar is producing more than demand the cost is inconsequential. Storing that h2 for electricity generation after the sun goes down is prime example around the clock carbon neutral energy production.

  3. Has the ammonia-hydrogen metal membrane been deployed in the vehicles? or is that at the pump only?

  4. For around a decade maybe much longer, Hydrogen powered cars have been around and finally, finally Australia is looking at this fuel source with some measure of interest. Let’s hope this gathers momentum and becomes viable, it will be much better for the environment hands down, I surprised we haven’t seriously considered this earlier.

  5. How is the hydrogen fuel created, how much energy does it take to do this, what percentage of green energy will it use ?

    1. This is a very good question. 50 to 55 kWh of electricity is required to produce 1kg of hydrogen, which has an energy value of 40kWh. A further 15 kWh of energy is required to compress the hydrogen for fuel in a car. Since fuel cells are only about 60% efficient only about 15kWh of electricity is actually available to power the car.

      1. … and their in lies one of the biggest problems with Hydrogen as we will have to deploy twice as much clean renewable energy generation to produce the same amount of end use power. Not impossible, but at the moment we are still trying to displace the old fossil fuel plants as quickly as possible to reduce the degree of climate change as well as the enormous impact on the our and other air breathing inhabitants of this finite planet.

        1. And how do you think they make petrol? And how efficient is that? As hydrogen has been used in industry for decades including petrol production it would be useful to produce clean hydrogen, not just for cars but industry!

      2. True …Scania the truck company have ditched hydrogen after comparing it to BEV so it looks like in the next decade or so BEV will win out … there is just too much loss of energy in using electricity to convert Hydrogen to a gas then back into electricity again

      3. Since you fill up the tank with hydrogen, by your own figures 60% efficiency so you have 28kWh/1kg of hydrogen to power the car. And the plus is your not producing carbon monoxide and CO2 like a petrol car.

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