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.


  1. Correct me if I’m wrong but the average petrol internal combustion engine is around 20-25% efficient at best, which isn’t great value from all the energy used & pollution caused to make petrol fuel in the first place.
    So hydrogen is a no brainer, along with BEV vehicles, it’s a step in the right direction. Market forces & technology will create better performance from such a things.
    Toyota in America have been experimenting with fuel cell Prados for as long as the Prius has been going but I’ve heard little of it’s status so far.
    Are they both a failure, why are there no Hydrogen Prados roaring around or Prius BEV’s by now.
    This experiment started nearly 20 years ago & with a company as big as Toyota, one would think that some definable progress would have been made by now 🤷🏻

  2. Does anyone know the history of water powered cars? I was reading John Banville’s novel ‘The Infinities’ in which there is a car run on water. The novel is set in England before WWII, from what I can make out.

  3. you right thanks for amazing information
    In fact, hydrogen energy is three times more potent than gasoline and other fossil fuels. … The drawback of using hydrogen in cars is that it is virtually impossible to store in cryogenic or high-pressure tanks.

  4. Hi Darryl,

    That’s a great question! Depending on the vehicle type and size, a hydrogen-powered car can achieve a range of 600km+, so a bit more than the average internal combustion engine vehicle. Some electric vehicles are also achieving this sort of range, although many still fall within the 300-400km range.

    Team CSIRO

    1. Toyota recently “achieved” 63miles/kg of hydrogen gas. Normal 15kg gas bottle will give you about 950miles!!!!!

      My thesis is titled “The Intensification of the Hydrogen Gas Production Process” and the reversible SMR process can be “intensified” with an enhanced reactor while utilising an improved catalyst and a synthetically produced sorbent to suppress the reverse reaction.

  5. How does driving distance compare between hydrogen and full electric cars?

    1. I’ve a friend with a Tesla who has just completed a trip from Brisbane to Cairns including sightseeing around Cairns.

      He kept a record of consumption of electricity for the trip. His figures are:
      round trip kms = 3306 kms
      Electricity used = 1 megawatt

      Figures are not precise to the last watt or km but close enough to get a feel for consumption.

      My friend pointed out that electric cars increase your house power consumption a lot. He has solar panels too.

      Once there are more EVs on the road the pressure on the power grid will be much higher.

      Point to note is that our state (Qld) power plants are getting older and there are no new plants planned or being built. I don’t know what is happening nationwide

      History shows us that from inception to completion a power station take 25 years to build. 20 if you rush Possibly.

      With the increase in EVs, hotter summers with increased air conditioning, and increased population we are already on the road to brown outs and black outs.

      This is what I worry about. The lack of forward planning for more electricity generation on a state and nationwide level to compensate for the demands EVs will place on our power systems.

What do you think?

We love hearing from you, but we have a few guidelines.