5 Biggest Problems Facing Hydrogen Combustion Cars

Whenever anyone brings up the future of sustainable transportation, battery-electric vehicles dominate the conversation until someone inevitably brings up hydrogen. It’s often brought up but rarely understood, and worse yet, it often gets lumped in with basic electric vehicles. This is because the only two hydrogen-powered vehicles on sale – the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo – are both hydrogen-fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and are effectively electric vehicles.

EVs are the boogeymen of modern-day car culture, but what if we could skip the electric part altogether and just burn hydrogen in the same way we do gasoline? Say hello to hydrogen combustion. These vehicles use the same internal combustion process we know and love, but they burn hydrogen instead of gas or diesel. The only byproduct is water vapor, making the vehicle itself almost green enough to shop at Trader Joe’s.

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A car that can be filled up in minutes makes glorious combustion noises and is good for the environment? It sounds like the answer to all of our problems. We found something automotive enthusiasts and the tree huggers of the world can both rally behind! Finally, we can get rid of all of those dumb electric vehicles and start producing hydrogen combustion vehicles by the million, right?

If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, there’s a reason you can’t go out and buy a hydrogen combustion vehicle at your local Ford dealer today, and it isn’t for lack of trying. There are many drawbacks to the technology, not to mention the major infrastructure investment needed and the public perception that still needs to be swayed. We decided to take a look at five of the biggest issues facing hydrogen combustion today to give you a better idea of why the technology isn’t ready for mass production yet.

1 Hydrogen Production Raises Environmental Concerns

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The major benefit of using hydrogen fuel in your vehicle is the lack of pollutants it creates when burned. In its free state, it’s comprised of two atoms that are then joined with oxygen during the combustion process to simply make water. There’s nothing more to it, and in a vacuum, it sounds like the answer we’re looking for, especially because hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Unfortunately, the production of hydrogen fuel leads to some blurred environmental lines.

Like the criticisms raised about electricity, hydrogen is mainly created through industrial processes polluting the environment. The most common way of creating hydrogen is through steam reforming, wherein high-temperature steam reacts with a hydrocarbon fuel, such as natural gas, to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. While carbon capturing can reduce the byproducts, it isn’t perfect, and the entire process muddies the eco-conscious waters.

The only way to ensure a green product is electrolysis, which uses a low-volume current to split water to create hydrogen powered by renewable or carbon-neutral energy sources. Although this method is being explored further, it just hasn’t made enough financial sense to warrant significant investment.

2 Energy Efficiency Is Lacking

Via: Toyota

If you weren’t aware, burning fossil fuels to power your vehicle is wildly inefficient. According to the US Department of Energy, only about 12%-30% of the energy created in your combustion vehicle is used to power it, with the rest of the energy dissipated through heat. We didn’t care too much about that until this point because we didn’t know or didn’t care about the negative effect of burning that fuel on the environment, and the use of fossil fuels to power our vehicles is incredibly convenient and relatively cheap.

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Unfortunately, gasoline, as controversial as it is, is still more energy-dense than hydrogen in liquid form (8 MJ/Liter for liquid hydrogen compared to about 34.2 MJ/Liter for gasoline). This means you’ll need more hydrogen to go the same distance compared to gasoline, but despite this, hydrogen is capable of reaching a higher thermal efficiency thanks to a higher flame speed than gasoline, allowing it to achieve efficiencies of around 40%. While this is a win for hydrogen, it still pales in comparison to the efficiency of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), which have efficiencies of around 80%.

We have a real-world comparison of hydrogen’s thermal efficiency. Yamaha built a hydrogen combustion 5.0-liter V8 for Toyota. It’s the same engine as used in the Lexus IS 500 and RC F, but with modifications to the injectors, cylinder heads, intake manifold, and more to produce 450 hp at 6,800 rpm and a maximum of 398 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. The standard gas-burning unit produces 472 hp and 395 lb-ft. It’s extremely close.

3 A Lack of Efficiency Means Larger Tanks


Thanks to this lack of energy density, hydrogen vehicles require much larger tanks to hold enough liquid to allow a vehicle to travel a similar distance as a gasoline or BEV. These tanks are complex because hydrogen isn’t a liquid anywhere close to room temperature, so they need to be able to store the liquid at levels from 350 bar (5,000 psi) to 700 bar (10,000 psi). The higher the pressure, the greater the amount of liquid that can be stored, but higher pressure also requires a more rugged, heavier tank.

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This means large areas of the vehicle are dedicated solely to the tank and surrounding systems necessary for it to function, something that adds weight and can cut into the storage capabilities. Take the Toyota GR Corolla hydrogen race car the company campaigns in Japan. Essentially, the entire rear half of the vehicle is dedicated to the hydrogen systems of the vehicle, not only because they need more space, but also because the company needs to ensure they’ll be in a place better protected from impacts that can rupture them.

This also means the stations necessary to fuel vehicles such as this would need to be significantly larger if they’re ever meant to serve the number of customers a gas station does on your average day. That is, if the infrastructure even exists to get hydrogen to that point.

4 Lack Of Infrastructure

Via: Toyota

It’s well known there is a serious lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure in our country, with Hawaii (1) and California (60) claiming the only public stations according to the US Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Fueling Station Locations map. This number was previously slightly higher, but Shell announced earlier this year it was permanently shutting down the seven stations it owned to better focus on “value over volume, and prioritizing capital investment in areas where we have distinct competitive advantages.”

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This is corporate speak for “we weren’t making any money,” which doesn’t come as a surprise given that light-duty hydrogen vehicle sales have simply fallen off a cliff. From the beginning of October 2023 until the end of March 2024, only 424 Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Nexos were sold, compared to 1,453 sales during the same period a year prior.

Consumers just aren’t sold on the benefits of the technology, especially, because the hydrogen fueling stations are consistently down, with only half working at many points in the past, making ownership a genuine hassle. If the owners of these stations are constantly spending money to maintain them, and they aren’t getting customers, it’s hard to convince them to keep the stations open in the hopes that the situation will improve at some point in the future.

5 Lack Of Public Support

Via: Toyota

Perhaps the most significant problem facing hydrogen combustion is the lack of public support for the technology. There’s a belief that continues to permeate popular culture that hydrogen fuel is unsafe, and although ample safety systems are in place, this isn’t an unwarranted concern. In 2020, a hydrogen plant in North Carolina exploded, causing damage to about 40 homes, but fortunately no injuries. Accidents like this are always brought up, but as is often done, they’re blown out of proportion regarding the actual amount of danger they offer.

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According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the United States sees around 180,000 vehicle fires each year, yet we’re never concerned about buying that next car or filling up for the umpteenth time spent at a random gas station. Until Americans are more willing to purchase these types of vehicles, better cars won’t be produced, and infrastructure won’t be further built. What may need to happen is the technology needs to be further shown off in US motorsport or a halo car of some kind. Get consumers excited about it, and the sales will come,

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