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. Last three comments raise a key question. The energy efficiency of the system. Elon Musk argues that the energy costs of the extra transformations in the hydrogen-powered vehicle are a serious disadvantage of that system compared to batter electricity for the same solar source. I guess it is thermodyamics again!

    1. If the hydrogen is generated using “excess” solar power then the inefficiencies are less of a concern. I think hydrogen will still form part of the energy mix in the future.

  2. We all need to know the real facts about producing Hydrogen! Not what the experts only want us to know. In this very short description above, there appears to be no real evidence that Hydrogen will accomplish any emission problems!

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