Hydrogen, this new car fuel from the automobile, is what, a hydrogen car? Numerama

What is a hydrogen car 

Airbus has unveiled three concepts of zero emission aircraft operating in hydrogen. The first aircraft could enter into.

Hydrogen, this new car fuel

Dacia has just announced its participation in the Dakar in 2024, with an e-fuel product based on hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Little by little, hydrogen makes room for manufacturers.

We only talked about him for high -end models. The synthetic fuel will however soon feed a Dacia. The one that will run the Dakar in 2025. While the Low-Cost manufacturer of Renault has just announced its entry into the rally-raid, it also announced that its car will work thanks to an e-fuel.

This synthetic fuel will be created by Aramco, based on hydrogen and carbon dioxide, for a fuel combining performance and lower impact on the environment. From the fuel cell, hydrogen gradually makes its way to the heat engine.

Fuel for thermal engine

This is one of the tracks explored by Toyota. Hydrogen pioneer with its mirai, released in 2015 and which is in its second generation, the Japanese manufacturer explores a hydrogen heat engine solution.

“It’s been a little more than a year since we test prototypes where we replace in a heat engine the petrol or diesel with liquid hydrogen,” explains to BFM Business Frank Marotte, CEO of Toyota France.

This technology therefore differs from that used until then by Toyota on the mirai, that of the fuel cell. In cars equipped with this technology, hydrogen supplies the fuel cell where it reacts with air oxygen to produce electricity which is then used to power an electric motor. In the hydrogen car with fuel engine, hydrogen is used as a fuel, injected into engine cylinders and mixed with air. This mixture produces a controlled explosion that generates power to propel the car. This also requires a tank capable of boarding hydrogen and a modification of the exhaust line.

“It is the same functioning otherwise with the same architecture of the car, which has many benefits and above all can have a potentially if you get to the right price, it is to be able to potentially treat the entire rolling park” , continues Frank Marotte.

This technology interests in particular in competition, as is the case of Toyota with its future prototype for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Toyota Gr H2 or Alpine. Renault’s sport brand also studies this track for future competition models, in particular via its manifest concept Alpenglow.

New generations of fuel cells

The fuel cell did not however say its last word. The other pioneer in hydrogen, Hyundai, has offered a hydrogen SUV since 2018, the Nexo. A technical solution also taken up by BMW, which has just launched a fleet of large SUVs IX5 Hydrogen to test in real condition its new generation of battery, or last year by Jaguar Land Rover, who has also tests a prototype of Defender since 2021 a fuel cell and therefore also operating in hydrogen.

French manufacturers have also launched on this market, notably by the utility vehicle. The Stellantis group has been marketing for a few months in the German and French markets for a few months, light combustible batteries utilities. The Citroën Jumpy, Peugeot Expert and Opel Vivaro were chosen as a model to launch this technology at Stellantis. The Renault group follows the same strategy with its subsidiary Hyvia, which markets fuel cell versions of different Master variants.

“We realize that we must damly accelerate on decarbonation and particularly the transport sector, summarizes Christelle Werquin, general delegate of the France Hydrogen association, on BFM Business. The technologies are mature and there is a global dynamic in terms of hydrogen as a vector of decarbonation in mobility as in other sectors “.

What is a hydrogen car ?

What differences with electric battery vehicles ?

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Hopium Hydrogen car concept // Source: hopium - Florian Saez

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The hydrogen car (H2) is a fuel cell electric car. Reducing charging time, fuel cell propulsion interests car manufacturers. What are the characteristics of these vehicles ?

The cogs of a hydrogen vehicle often remain a mystery for ordinary people. Identifiable under the name FCEV, for ” Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle », Hydrogen cars are part of the electric vehicle category. Unlike BEV, for ” Battery Electric Vehicle “, The hydrogen vehicle is capable of producing the electricity it needs. Its traction is ensured by an electrical powertrain. This is the major difference between battery electric vehicles and H2 cars.

How hydrogen cars work ?

To simplify, it is as if the hydrogen vehicle transported an electricity production center on board: the famous fuel cell. The gas is stored under pressure in the vehicle tanks. It is this fuel cell that transforms full hydrogen into electricity. In contact with oxygen, hydrogen reacts and produces electricity, heat and water vapor (H2O). This process is called ” reverse electrolysis »».


The energy produced is evacuated in the form of steam and therefore does not make any polluting emissions. The majority of hydrogen vehicles on the market are based today on this principle. The recharge is carried out in dedicated stations, however few they may be (there are a dozen in France). Hydrogen is then injected in the form of pressure gas. The very short recharging time is the major asset of the FCEV compared to the BEV: barely five minutes for the IX5 of BMW.

Their autonomy is similar, even superior, that of electric vehicles equipped with powerful batteries: between 400 and 500 km. A good point: the autonomy of vehicles operating at H2 does not depend on the outside temperature and is therefore not reduced in winter. Among the other advantages, we find silence, driving pleasure and access to areas with limited traffic of certain city centers.

BMW IX5 Hydrogen recharges in a few minutes // Source: BMW

What are their disadvantages ?

If hydrogen cars are struggling to democratize, it is because many drawbacks prevent their large -scale adoption: limited infrastructure, high cost, supply, storage, environmental impact of production, etc. It’s a lot. Even if hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is quite rare in the pure state on earth.

Another blocking point: hydrogen production is the source of a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Green hydrogen is still not very widespread. The subject is not unrelated to the recent coming of the Indian Prime Minister in France, according to Challenges. Narendra me seeks to weave new partnerships between France and India, to accelerate the production of neutral carbon hydrogen.

Hydrogen leaks also represent a risk to the environment. IPCC experts have shown that they could even accentuate climate change. Steven Hamburg, co-author of the latest IPCC reports, reported to Euractiv that ” Hydrogen is a powerful greenhouse gases when leaking in the atmosphere. It has a short lifespan but, in equal mass, it is 200 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). »»

Safety: another size problem raised by the storage of hydrogen. Its low energy density means that it takes a lot of space to store it. This gas is also known to be particularly flammable. In 2019, a hydrogen car station had, for example, exploded in Norway, in Sandvika. What arouse many concerns among the population.

What is the price of a liter of hydrogen ?

The price of hydrogen varies depending on several factors, such as the production method, the production scale, “purity” or geographic location. As is the case for conventional fuels, the price of hydrogen can fluctuate due to changes on the market or geopolitical events. In general, the production of this gas is more expensive than that of fossil fuels, such as petrol or diesel.

Hydrogen is often measured in kilograms rather than in liters, Because it is stored and distributed in gaseous form, which makes the conversion between the two difficult measures.

According to Engie, the current hydrogen rate is between 10 and 15 euros/kg. Since the capacity of tanks is often close to 6 liters, it takes between 60 and 100 euros full. For the moment, the cost of using a hydrogen vehicle is therefore not advantageous compared to thermal vehicles.

The cost per liter of hydrogen can vary depending on the storage density and temperature and pressure conditions. Production and storage technologies are constantly evolving. Refueling also remains difficult, because the number of hydrogen charging stations in France is still limited to a few dozen. The price of the liter should decrease over the years, as technologies will improve and demand increase.

A charging station for hydrogen vehicles in Moutiers, France

Are hydrogen cars the future ?

It’s a real debate. The future of the automotive industry is a complex subject. Some imagine electric vehicles to win, others think that hydrogen can take over. What seems obvious is that hydrogen cars will most likely be part of the equation. Difficult to predict with certainty if they will become the dominant option.

The cost of vehicles operating at H2 is to date too high to be able to imagine their democratization. According to H2 Mobile, the two models offered in France, namely the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, exceed € 70,000. There are two explanations to this phenomenon. First, manufacturers have currently chosen to market high -end and well -equipped models. In addition, production volumes are low.

In 2023, electric vehicles were acclaimed. They benefit from an increasingly developed charging infrastructure and see the production cost of batteries drop. Manufacturers also strive to improve their autonomy and reduce charging times. All this suggests that the future is preparing to accommodate mass electric vehicles, but not necessarily hydrogen vehicles. Certain specific sectors could however be fond of hydrogen: utility vehicles or trucks.

In a report entitled ” Energy Outlook 2023 “, The oil giant BP believes that” Hydrogen will only play a minimal role in the decarbonization of light vehicles »». The British company writes that the potential of the hydrogen cars market is ” practically nonexistent for 2050 »». The group nevertheless promises a radiant future for hydrogen in the aviation, industry and maritime transport sectors.

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Are hydrogen cars viable ?

While electric cars are on the rise, another technology is about to disembark. Hydrogen also promises a decarbonized source of energy as well as an even more successful experience. We take stock.

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When we talk about hydrogen car, these are actual fuel cell electric cars. Concretely, the vehicle is powered by one or more electric motors. The main difference therefore lies in the energy storage method. If conventional electric cars are based on batteries, hydrogen cars count on a fuel cell. An alternative exists, however, that of the heat engine car, using dihydrogen as a fuel to replace diesel or petrol.

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Hydrogen heat -powered thermal engine

Many enthusiasts already regret the heat engine in the face of the boom in electric cars. For them, noise, vibrations and character specific to each model represent the soul of the thermal car. Theoretically, it will be possible to keep all this with an internal combustion engine operating in hydrogen.

Many manufacturers, such as Toyota, Yamaha, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, BMW or Ford announce working on hydrogen thermal motors. The idea is to replace the fuel with dihydrogen by adapting the stoichiometric ratio (air/fuel mixture), the tank as well as certain components to limit the wear of the engine because of the H2 molecule.

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Hydrogen being highly explosive and offering an energy potential much higher than that of diesel or petrol, we can imagine an engine consuming little and offering the same power to comparable comparable comparable power. On the other hand, the engine should be able to receive a large volume of air so that the combustion is ideal and rejects the least CO2 and fine particles. With the engaged engines by a turbo or a compressor, the solution is possible. It nevertheless seems much less likely for so -called “atmospheric” engines. With this in mind, it would even be credible to imagine a conversion kit to adapt your vehicle to hydrogen.

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For the moment, Toyota has presented Yaris GR H2 and Corolla Cross H2, concept car using hydrogen as fuel, and intends to market this solution. For his part, Kawasaki announced working on a motorcycle based on the engine of the H2 SX with the compressed engine.

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The fuel cell

If the simple words “fuel cell” may seem futuristic or utopian, the process is actually quite old. Discovered in 1839, the fuel cell is based on the principle of oxyodored dihydrogen molecules to dioxygen molecules (2 h2 + O2 → 2 h2O). This process thus releases water, heat and electricity, which is used to supply the electric motor. Apart from water vapor, harmless, local emissions are zero and are therefore an argument in favor of this technology.

Advantages of the hydrogen car

Without CO2 and pollutant emissions

The hydrogen car operating as an electric car, polluting emissions in operation are zero; only water vapor results from the chemical reaction. Without combustion in the engine, the car does not release fine particles or co2, With the exception, obviously, braking particles and tires.

In the same way, hydrogen vehicles benefit from the precious green cris’ir vignette allowing them to circulate in freedom in the ZFEs, including during pollution peaks.

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Great autonomy

One of the main grievances against the electric car is its reduced autonomy and the time spent recharging it. If it is necessary to change its habits to go to this technology, hydrogen, however, promises a good compromise.

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Indeed, the Toyota Mirai (announced for 650 km WLTP) holds the autonomy record with a 1360 km journey made with a single “full”. The Hopium Machina, a French car recently presented at the Paris Automobile Fair promises more than 1000 km of autonomy.

On the other hand, filling the hydrogen tank would not take more than 5 minutes and is carried out at the pump. This brings this technology closer to our habits with thermal cars.

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Efficient cars

With an engine or more electric motors, hydrogen cars offer a driving quality equivalent to that of their battery pendant. The instant couple worthy of a truck makes it possible to easily tow the mass of the vehicle and to offer a single approval. Hopium Machina claims a motorcycle group of 500 horsepower to shoot 0 to 100 km/h in just 5 seconds. The Namx HUV coming soon announces similar performance.

Without noise, without vibration and odorless, driving a fuel cell car and electric motor allows you to really focus on the essentials: driving.

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Purchase aid

As with electric cars, the FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) are eligible for the Crit’Air Green sticker, which can make the inhabitants of the ZFE smile. But in addition to that, battery cars are also eligible for state aid at the time of acquisition.

By buying a hydrogen car, you can benefit from the ecological bonus reserved for the electric car; This bonus is maximum below € 47,000 and goes from € 5,000 to 7,000 depending on the income. The offer of vehicles at this price is unfortunately lean and the ecological bonus is only € 1,000 for vehicles over € 47,000. To this ecological bonus can be added a possible conversion bonus as well as various local aids.

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The disadvantages of the hydrogen car

A too skinny offer

If the supply of electric vehicles on battery continues to grow, that of the FCEV still remains too thin. Currently, there is only a handful of brands developing this technology. In France, we can only buy two new models: the Toyota Mirai, the Sister of the Prius, and the Hyundai Nexo SUV. On the price side, you have to pay at least € 72,250 for the Toyota and around € 80,000 for the Hyundai SUV.
Other models are to come, such as NAMX HUV, Hopium Machina or the future BMW IX5 Hydrogen.

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In addition, consequence or cause of the low offer of cars, hydrogen stations are almost absent from the territory. There are around thirty in France, which is clearly insufficient to offer drivers a serene experience. A government recovery plan provides 7.2 billion euros in investment by 2030 to energize this technology, but the stations are currently too rare to consider going on vacation with a FCEV car.

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Not so economical

The rare models available on the market are negotiated at gold prices. But like electric cars, the additional cost for purchase can quickly be returned to use ? You could say that yes, but the observation is much more mixed.

By taking a car like the Hyundai Nexo, there is a tank of 6.33 kg of hydrogen. For 1 kg of hydrogen, you have to pay between 10 to 15 €, which represents a “full” at around 70 €. Such a car consumes approximately 1 kg/100 km, therefore bringing the expense to around 11 €/100 km. For comparison, a diesel SUV consuming 5.5 l/100 km will have cost € 10.16 to cover the same distance (average price for diesel B7: € 1.848). To save money, it will therefore be necessary to wait for the development of the sector for hydrogen production to democratize and manufacturers can achieve economies of scale.

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Too low yield

One of the main difficulties in the democratization of hydrogen is linked to its production and transport. To obtain hydrogen, there are several solutions. The first two consist in obtaining dihydrogen either by gasification of fossil fuels (coal), or by natural gas reforming (methane), but they have the main drawbacks of heavy emissions of greenhouse greenhouse. Hydrogen from these processes is called “gray hydrogen”.

The third solution, that commonly envisaged, goes through water electrolysis. This is a process which, thanks to an electric current, allows to separate 2 molecules of water to obtain dioxygen and dihydrogen (2 h (2 h2O → 2 h2 + O2)). This more expensive technique has the merit of presenting a much more advantageous carbon footprint, provided you use decarbonized electricity (nuclear or renewable). In contrast to gray hydrogen, that obtained by electrolysis is called “green hydrogen”, provided you use a source of renewable electricity, or “yellow hydrogen” in the case of nuclear production.

In order to establish the real consumption of a car, it is necessary to be interested in the entire chain called “Power-to-H2-to-Power” which designates the fact of using hydrogen to store the energy before returning it for the final use. Ademe thus speaks of an efficiency of approximately 25 %, compared to 70 % for a battery, because of the successive transformations inducing energy losses. In this diagram, 100 kWh of electricity allow you to make only 25 kWh, when a battery car can make a full full (70 kWh) with the same amount of electricity.


Still too expensive to buy and use, cars with fuel cells are pale in the face of competition on better armed battery, more affordable and much more widespread. If the advantages are undeniable, it is still necessary to resolve the question of the production of hydrogen. If we have already chosen between a gray hydrogen, polluting but affordable, or a green (or yellow) hydrogen with the lower and much more expensive yield to produce, it will also be necessary that the production of electricity can meet the needs.

If this scheme does not seem to be viable at present for a particular customer, however, it is necessary to take into account the potential technological advances which will improve energy efficiency. In addition, industrialists are considering hydrogen more for heavy transport, such as trucks, trains and planes as well as for specific applications.