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

Molecular hydrogen is a gas. As a chemical element, hydrogen is 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.

33 comments

  1. The comments and responses, are very confusing. Can it be more of logical and analytical train of thought please, and less of a marketing or cynical campaign!
    I am seriously interested in any form of energy that is efficient and produces the least pollution. I do accept some manufacturing process will produce pollution, but would like that also to be close to zero, if possible.

  2. The theoretical efficiency of the petrol cycle is typically less than 60%, Diesel somewhat better perhaps close to 80%. Now compare production of hydrogen using solar power which can be very cheap and hydrogen begins to make sense.

  3. There are people in America adapting modules to make on board hydrogen for their vehicles.
    Why can’t you brilliant people take this to the next level.
    Imagine the market which would open up for a conversion kit for existing ULP vehicles.
    The person that could come up with this would become wealthier than Bill Gates.
    I am old enough to remember the man who demonstrated his Holden (Statesman?) On stage and TV.
    Running on hydrogen.

  4. Hydrogen seems to be getting a lot of attention lately.

    A factor that isn’t answered in this blog is how safe are hydrogen fuel cells compared to petrol tanks. As hydrogen is explosive, what happens to a hydrogen car if it is involved in an accident? how safe is it for passengers?

    Also if hydrogen use is increased, how safe is the transport of hydrogen to these fuelling stations? while the blog broadly answers that hydrogen is currently being transported, has any analysis gone into what would happen to mass transportation of hydrogen?

    There are some safety concerns that need to be answered.

    1. Hydrogen is about 10x less flammable than gasoline (petrol, for example needs only about 1 – 3% saturation with oxygen, whereas hydrogen nearer 30%).

      Hydrogen flames also disperse much more quickly and move upwards because hydrogen is lighter than air (that’s why it was used to fill balloons). Hydrogen flames and explosions are also much less dense than those generated from burning petrochemicals, which is probably why hydrogen is used to power electric motors rather than combustion engines.

      Regarding mass transport, in principle, if you keep the size of the individual containers within a certain limit, breaching one (of maybe more depending on their size, of course) would mean that the required H / O2 saturation pint would not be reached before the hydrogen had dispersed (upwards away from danger, don’t forget). Compare that with say the Hindenburg (the most commonly quoted accident and one that I researched when first becoming interested in Hydrogen as a fuel), the ship was one single HGUE container of hydrogen, rather than multiple smaller self-contained cells. There were a number of combustion engines creating a continuous series of small explosions each sucking in the ‘gas’ from the surrounding atmosphere that suddenly reached saturation point for hydrogen explosion when that single huge storage cell was breached byt the mooring pylon that is was trying to connect to. It’s worth noting that the Graf Spee (sister ship of the Hindenburg) flew over 1 million miles without a similar event and was only grounded after the Hindenburg disaster.

      SO like all fuels, it’s not 100% safe, but it is actually safer to store and transport than petrol, and we’re happy enough to have tankers full of that running around out roads,

      Foe me that biggest issue with hydrogen at the moment is the inefficiency of production, but that is a matter of time. I suspect we will see further developments in the technology in both production and usages over the next decade or so and eventually see it take over from batteries in vehicles.

      Hydrogen is no silver bullet, but has the potential to be a much needed part of a more environmentally sound future.

  5. I think should work useful fuel to control poulation in world .As can be used efficient nd cheap fuel with high level of precaution .

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