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Hydrogen fuel usage in passenger vehicles


Passenger vehicles account for 12% of the total emissions of CO2 in the EU and reducing those emissions is vital for many countries to achieve net zero. Zero emission vehicles are, by no means, new, with BEV passenger cars finding a foothold in the market well over a decade ago; but it’s only in the last few years that this foothold has grown into a huge, ever-growing portion of the new car market. 

The 2030 deadline on the production and sale of petrol and diesel vehicles might have been pushed back to 2035, but many manufacturers have been laying the groundwork for a new type of fuel to power their passenger cars – hydrogen. 

The History of Hydrogen in Passenger Cars 

It was actually back in 1966 that the grandfather of modern hydrogen-powered vehicles was first revealed – General Motors’ Electrovan. Fuelled by both a super-cooled liquid hydrogen tank and a liquid oxygen tank, it featured over 500-feet of piping within the rear of the vehicle. The sheer size of the fuelling system meant that fitting a similar design into a smaller vehicle would have been near-impossible. With a top speed of 70mph and an impressive range of 120 miles, the Electrovan’s production costs were its biggest fault according to GM; the cost of the platinum required to manufacture just the prototype van was enough to “buy a whole fleet of vans”. 

Hydrogen-power was barely considered as a fuel for passenger vehicles for the next three decades until, in 2003, GM returned to the idea with the Hy-Wire, a hydrogen-powered concept car with no pedals, cameras hooked up to screens instead of wing mirrors, and an adjustable steering wheel – not so you can find the right position for your arms, but so you can switch from right-hand drive to left-hand drive in seconds if required. 

Where are we now? 

Unfortunately, just as with the Electrovan, the Hy-Wire remained a prototype, but it was only a decade later, in 2013, that we would see the first hydrogen-powered vehicle enter the market – the Hyundai ix35 FCEV. 

Using an SUV body, the ix35 FCEV made full advantage of the space provided with its large hydrogen tanks. It certainly didn’t start a wave of hydrogen cars appearing on the market as access to the fuel was as difficult as it was expensive, but it didn’t stop Toyota from unveiling their hydrogen-powered, four-door saloon car, a year later, in 2014 – the Toyota Mirai.  

These both utilised fuel cell technology for their power, but even electric vehicles were still finding their footing at this time, and charge points were much easier to access than any hydrogen refuelling stations. 

In the last 10 years since the ix35 FCEV’s release, there has been very little movement in the passenger vehicle market towards hydrogen-powered vehicles. Hyundai released a second FCEV in the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota have continued to build upon the technology with new versions of the Mirai having been released in 2021 and with BMW, JLR, Honda and others having created hydrogen-powered concept vehicles with hopes of seeing release in the next two years. 

Unlike with Industrial vehicles, it seems firmly decided that FCEVs are the best way of utilising hydrogen fuel, but hydrogen combustion engines can’t be ignored. 

The Power of Hydrogen Combustion 

Hydrogen combustion engines utilise hydrogen in the same was that petrol and diesel combustion engines use their respective fuels and this makes adapting existing engines to use hydrogen much easier than retrofitting an entire BEV motor and battery. It could be that as hydrogen fuel becomes more accessible to the average consumer, retrofitting old vehicles to take hydrogen will see a rise just as retrofitting cars into electric cars has. 

Hydrogen’s similarity to petrol and diesel doesn’t just mean the average consumer can retrofit their vehicles; it also means adapting production lines to manufacture hydrogen combustion engines instead of petrol and diesel combustion engines is much easier. Hydrogen fuel might be more efficient (almost twice as much) when utilised in a fuel cell, but the ease of transitioning manufacturing to hydrogen combustion engines paired with the fact that many mechanics aren’t equipped to fix BEVs or FCEVs means that hydrogen combustion could be the linchpin to getting hydrogen into the mainstream. 

Of course, hydrogen fuel’s similarity to diesel and petrol in terms of usage also means that injecting hydrogen into an ICE through the air intake can massively improve the efficiency of the engine whilst reducing emissions. This small addition to existing vehicles could have a massive impact on the CO2 emissions from passenger vehicles, but until the consumer market can easily access hydrogen fuel – as they can with petrol, diesel and electricity – it will struggle to see wide adoption. 

What the future holds for Hydrogen 

With passenger vehicles, we’ll likely see a rise in hydrogen fuel usage as the technology continues to grow. There are plenty of manufacturers who are likely waiting for their contemporaries to test the waters before diving into the technology themselves, and many commercial vehicle manufacturers have already taken full advantage of the technology. But from a consumer perspective, it isn’t just ordinary passenger vehicles that they’ll have on offer.  

Even though significant space requirement is considered a necessity in hydrogen-powered vehicles, Hyundai have created a sporty, 670-horsepower supercar with the N Vision 74; American supercar manufacturer Hyperion Motors recently unveiled the XP-1 with a top speed of 220 mph; and Riversimple, a Welsh manufacturer, revealed their tiny concept car the Rasa, capable of going 300 miles on just 1.5 kg of hydrogen. 

Outside of four-wheeled vehicles, several BEV motorcycles have entered the market over the last few years, but in terms of hydrogen vehicles, in 2009 we saw the ENV hydrogen-powered fuel cell motorcycle capable of top speeds of 50 mph and a range of 100 miles. 

Though the lightweight design certainly drew the attention of consumers, the lack of infrastructure left it to remain an early foray into hydrogen motorcycles and very few manufacturers followed suit. Recently, however, motorcycle manufacturer Kawasaki announced a hydrogen-powered bike, the H2 Hydrogen. The bike is still in development stages but with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry helping Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki with the development of hydrogen engines for motorcycles, we’ll likely see more from Japanese motorcycle manufacturers in the near future. 

It’s impossible to say where hydrogen fuel might be in a decade’s time, but as demand continues to increase and manufacturers continue to utilise the technology in new vehicles, hydrogen’s many benefits will certainly make in a main player in the alternative fuel market.  

If you’re curious to see more about the history of hydrogen fuel and what the future holds for it, take a look at our Hydrogen: The Future of Fuel? guide at the link here.