How do hydrogen cars and fuelling stations work? The complete guide

Jesse Crosse

25 Aug 2023

Not everyone things pure electric cars are the future. While there is a general consensus that we need to stop burning fossil fuels to achieve environmental targets, there is some disagreement about the best way to create zero-emission and low carbon transport. Hydrogen is being hailed by some as a better solution.

Whereas battery cars use energy generated elsewhere and store it in rechargeable packs, fuel cell vehicles use a chemical process (called reverse electrolysis) to create electricity on board. The important thing about hydrogen fuel cell cars is that the hydrogen isn’t burnt, so there’s no harmful exhaust. Instead, it’s brought together with fresh air in the fuel cell were it’s harmlessly converted to clean electricity with only heat and pure water as by-products.​

​Such cars take about five minutes to re-fuel, have ranges that aren’t that far behind petrol or diesel cars, and unlike pure electrics, don’t become less efficient in cold weather.

The first thing to know about hydrogen cars like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo which are the only two on sale in the UK today, is that they are actually electric cars powered by an electric motor. Hydrogen fuel cell cars, to give them their proper name, differ from the average battery EV on sale today, in that they use hydrogen gas as a source of energy to keep them moving, rather than a large battery.

What is a hydrogen fuel-cell car like to drive? 

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are exactly the same to drive as a battery electric car and are powered by the same type of electric motor. They are just as powerful and carry enough hydrogen to give an impressive range. The latest Toyota Mirai for instance, has a range of 400 miles on a single fill of hydrogen. Like a battery electric car there’s no gear-changing involved and hydrogen fuel cell cars drive like a conventional automatic. Just jump in, turn them on, select drive or reverse, press the accelerator pedal and off you go.

The Toyota Mirai has a range of 400 miles on a single fill of hydrogen

How easy is it to refuel a hydrogen fuel cell car? 

Topping up the tank with hydrogen involves a very similar routine to filling with petrol or diesel and it only takes a few minutes. With Toyota’s Mirai, you pull up at a pump and press a button on the dash to open the fuel filler cap. Next, make a payment at the pump and lift the pump nozzle from its cradle. It looks very similar to a conventional petrol or diesel pump with a spout and a trigger lever.

After connecting the nozzle to the filling point on the car, all it takes is a quick squeeze of the trigger to lock the nozzle firmly in place then press the start button on the pump. That’s it, job done. A Toyota Mirai can be filled at the pump in less than five minutes, about the same time it takes for petrol or diesel, then it’s just a question of returning the pump nozzle to its cradle and you’re on your way.

How much does hydrogen cost for a car? 

Hydrogen is a gas and it’s stored under high pressure in special carbon fibre tanks. Though it may sound weird, its quantity is measured not in litres but by weight. The latest Toyota Mirai holds 5.6kg of hydrogen which in the UK in 2024 costs around £15 per kg, so a tankful costs £84. With a range of 400 miles, that works out at around 21p per mile - pretty much comparable to a petrol of diesel. It also compares well to an electric car which is charged at a public rapid charger, but is a lot more expensive than an EV charged at home on cheap rate energy.

Refilling with hydrogen costs about the same as a petrol car

Is hydrogen safe? 

Don’t worry, they’re quite safe and over the last couple of decades tanks have been exhaustively tested by crashing them, dropping them from a great height and even shooting at them with firearms. In the unlikely event they were to rupture the gas is lighter than air and vents away. In many ways its safer than petrol fumes which are heavier than air and sit at ground level when there’s a leak.

Where can I buy one?

Now here’s the thing. Despite hydrogen fuel cell cars being under development for the last 25 years, the refuelling infrastructure to refuel them has been painfully slow in coming. It’s a chicken and egg thing, what comes first, the refuelling network or the cars?

Technically the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo are available in the UK but you need to be close to one of around 15 hydrogen stations (as of August 2023, the number keeps changing as some open and some close). The few cars that are in the country are run by business organisations or fleets.

There are a few BMW iX5 Hydrogen models in the UK too, but they’re undergoing trials and not on sale. Still, you can buy or lease both the Toyota and the Nexo by contacting the manufacturers directly through their websites.

A Mirai comes in three trim levels, Design at £49,995, Design Plus at £53,995 and Design Premium at £64,995. A Design Plus model can also be leased and for a 3 year deal that costs £450 per month. The Nexo can be bought for around £70,000 or leased by contacting Hyundai. Both companies stress you must be within range of one of the scarce hydrogen stations to own one though.

Will I ever be able to buy a hydrogen fuel cell car for a price I can afford? 

The technology behind fuel cell cars is quite grown-up now, but the lack of fuelling stations is the problem and they’re not likely to be around in numbers anytime soon. The Tees Valley Hydrogen Transport Hub will open in the north east of England in 2024 backed by an £8 million grant to make hydrogen refuelling available and while the main aim is to supply delivery trucks, it could also supply cars. As the network of grows, we could see greater availability of hydrogen fuel cell cars but it’s likely to be a long time before you can walk into a car showroom and buy one like a battery electric car.

Where can I buy hydrogen and where is my nearest hydrogen filling station?

Even the most ardent hydrogen fan would admit that filling up is a challenge, and rather than expanding, there have been a number of closures in recent years. As a result there are just three hydrogen filling stations for cars in the whole of the UK currently (as of August 2023). The biggest is near Heathrow Airport, with the others in Sheffield and Aberdeen. Three more are planned in Glasgow, Stockton-on-Tees and Newport. 

Why aren't there more hydrogen filling stations?

For fuel cell cars to be truly usable you’d need about 400 UK-wide re-fuelling points, according to the Petrol Retailer’s Association - and they cost an eye watering £1m each at least. Many truck and bus operators are looking at fuel cells for their vehicles, and if hydrogen powered lorries, buses and coaches became commonplace, a network of filling stations would be needed for them. This could also serve cars, in theory.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen exterior side at hydrogen station Without the refuelling infrastructure, fuel cell cars won't become mainstream

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