Hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles

In 2021, the Department of Energy and Public Works (EPW) started a 3-year trial to drive 5 Hyundai NEXO fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). The trial is evaluating how FCEVs can deliver government services to communities across South East Queensland.

FCEVs are refuelled using compressed hydrogen gas, and the only emission is water vapour. The vehicle takes 3 to 5 minutes to fill up, which provides around 660km of range.

Below you’ll find information about hydrogen, how fuel cells work, and why hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles might be the future.

Origins of hydrogen

Hydrogen is the sun’s fuel and the most abundant element in the universe. Around 61% of atoms in the human body are hydrogen atoms.

There is very little free hydrogen in the earth's atmosphere because it’s so light that it eventually escapes into space. In nature, hydrogen is found with other elements, such as in ammonia and water.

Hydrogen can be derived from sources such as coal or methane, or by electrolysing water.

How hydrogen is developed is often categorised by colour:

  • Green hydrogen is developed when renewable energy is used to split water (H2O) into hydrogen gas and oxygen. Green hydrogen is a focus for the Queensland Government.
  • Grey hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels, and the process releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • Blue hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels, but the emissions generated in the production process are captured using carbon capture and storage.

How fuel cells work

Hydrogen vehicles are fully fledged electric vehicles and are officially referred to as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Instead of a big battery, FCEVs are powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The fuel cell creates electricity via a chemical reaction by combining hydrogen from its tanks and oxygen from the air.

There is no combustion because the hydrogen doesn’t burn. The only emission from the ‘tailpipe’ is water vapour.

Additionally, an FCEV’s efficient and durable air-purifier filters remove 99.9% of micro-particulates. This means the fuel cell’s clean technology helps remove emissions from the air while you drive.

FCEVs also have regenerative braking, which captures energy when you slow down or brake and puts it into a small battery like a hybrid vehicle.

Safety and hydrogen vehicles

Hydrogen vehicles like the Hyundai NEXO are among the safest vehicles on the road.

The compressed gas is stored in composite carbon fibre tanks with a polymer liner that undergo significant testing before being released.

This testing includes inflating them to twice the recommended pressure, setting them on fire and firing bullets at them!

Extensive crash testing is also conducted before release. For example, if the tanks are compromised, the hydrogen will escape straight up at 80 kilometres per hour.

Fuel cell versus battery electric vehicles

There are 2 main differences between FCEVs and battery electric vehicles: refuelling time and vehicle weight.

Compressed hydrogen gas is extremely energy dense. For example, the Hyundai NEXO can get 650km from just 6kg of hydrogen. In comparison, the 64kW battery in the Hyundai Kona, a smaller vehicle, gets around 450km from a fully charged 450kg battery.

The FCEV’s refuelling time from a dedicated hydrogen bowser is around 5 minutes. However, the Hyundai Kona electric vehicle takes 47 minutes to refuel—to only 80%.

This means that fuel cells are perfect for applications that involve a lot of weight and little downtime, such as buses, long-haul trucks, ferries, trains and even planes.

Why we’re not all driving FCEVs yet

While hydrogen fuel technology is probably the future, some issues do need to be resolved before we can all drive FCEVs.

The first issue is energy efficiency. Hydrogen must be made, cooled/compressed, transported, stored in pressurised/cooled tanks and pumped into the vehicle before the fuel cell can use it to create electricity for the electric motor to drive the wheels. This process is currently around 30–40% efficient—though it’s still more efficient than internal combustion, which is around 20% efficient.

More efficiencies will come with:

  • better electrolysers
  • more efficient fuel cells
  • production of hydrogen on-site, so it doesn’t need to be transported.

For example, if you charge a battery electric vehicle via solar panels on your roof, the energy only needs to go through the solar inverter and the vehicle's onboard charger to the battery, which then provides electricity to the electric motor to drive the wheels. This can be about 90–95% efficient.

The other current issue for FCEVs is that you can't recharge them at home. For the moment, you still need to go to a service station.

As part of the government’s hydrogen strategy, BOC and BP are building a permanent hydrogen refuelling station at BP’s Lytton truck stop by the end of 2022. This will be Australia’s first public service station hydrogen refueller.

The refueller will form part of the Queensland Hydrogen Super Highway along the state’s heavy haulage transport routes.

Future uses for hydrogen and fuel cells

QFleet believes that fuel cell and battery technologies are complementary (like petrol and diesel are now). They can fulfil various needs and have great potential to reduce emissions in the future.

Other uses for hydrogen include:

  • coal replacement in steelmaking
  • stationary energy storage.

Electrolysers can also soak up surplus electricity and create energy to export to other countries without our abundant renewable resources.

The Queensland Government is committed to making and exporting our beautiful Queensland sunshine to the world as green hydrogen.

Read more information about the Queensland Government’s hydrogen initiatives.