Alternative Fuel: Fuelling The Future Through Hydrogen


Toyota are leading the global charge on exploring Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology as it applies to daily drives. We spend time with the latest iteration of the Mirai – the sexiest looking post fossil fuel vehicle on the roads at the moment. But is sexy styling enough to make these cars make sense?

Elon Musk described the idea as “incredibly dumb.” Jeremy Clarkson said it’s the future of the automotive industry. We’d usually take Elon’s word all day long over that of the great chinoed one. But is there a possibility that hydrogen fuel cells will be a powerful ingredient in the mix of the clean road – alongside vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries charged on the electrical grid? 

Toyota is one of the few manufacturers currently exploring the hydrogen fuel-cell path, and their credentials as pioneers in the eco-car movement are strong. The company of course introduced the Prius, which has both a chargeable battery and a combustion engine, back in 2000. They have sold more than 16 million hybrid cars since then, and the Prius became a cliché of Hollywood virtuousness. It’s a powerful legacy.

A side view of the Hydrogen Mirai

Classic looks and a desirable presence. You can buy this car because of its looks too. Image: TOYOTA

It’s 2021 now, though, and hybrids are old news. You won’t be able to buy new-model hybrids after 2035 in the UK, or new fully fossil fuel-run vehicles in just nine years’ time. So what comes next? The majority of car manufacturers (like Musk’s Tesla) are going the battery-electric route. This involves plugging the car into a charging station to top up the battery, typically for hours at a time, and that battery directly powers the motor. 

Toyota does sell a couple of battery-electric cars, as well as hybrids, and your standard petrol and diesel vehicles. But the company is also putting its weight behind hydrogen fuel cell technology, which it has been researching since the early 1990s. In 2015, the Toyota Mirai was launched: the first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to be sold commercially, and 10,000 have been sold since then. We had a go in the first version. It was a little ugly, and a little dull to drive. But despite the first version’s lack of pizazz, it was a fascinating piece of engineering. The company released more than 5,000 free-to-use patents that it registered during development of the Mirai at the same time, hoping to promote the development of the technology throughout the world. 

Fast-forward to 2021, and the upgraded, sexier looking, second-generation Mirai is one of just two hydrogen-powered car models on the UK market. The other is the Hyundai Nexo, a compact crossover SUV which was launched in 2018. The Mirai, which has had something of an overhaul since it was first released, is now a sleek, saloon/sedan-style offering that feels comfortable, luxurious and quiet. It actually presents more as a Lexus. More of a premium product, than a mainline Toyota, whereas the first-generation Mirai was closer to a 2010 Prius. It’s been compared by many reviewers to Tesla’s Model S – though of course the Tesla dynamics can’t at the moment be matched by hydrogen fuel cell motors.

A high rear view of the Mirai

Styling is not futuristic for futuristic’s sake. Image: TOYOTA

With an acceleration speed of 0-100 km/h in 9.0 seconds, the Mirai isn’t going to win awards for dynamism, but plenty has been upgraded since the first-generation model, including more fuel capacity. The positioning of the fuel tanks has been rejigged to create a little more room, and it now has rear-wheel drive – which tangibly improves the driving experience. Anyway, the Mirai’s selling point isn’t the fine details of performance and handling. It’s about being an early adopter of a technology that could become transformative.

So how does it actually work? Regular electric cars are powered by chargeable batteries that store power until they’ve been run down and need to be topped up. Hydrogen fuel cell cars create electricity on the move, by diverting oxygen from the air and hydrogen from tanks to the fuel cell stack. Electricity is created by the reaction, which powers the motor, via a converter, and the byproduct is just a small amount of water, which can be ejected at the back, whenever is convenient after a long ride. There is a battery too, which stores energy during deceleration and boosts the power from the fuel-cell stack when the car is accelerating.

The advantage of all this is that the hydrogen fuel tanks can be filled in just a few minutes, while many electric cars take hours to recharge, and you can drive further before having to refuel. Toyota says you can expect up to 400 miles between fuel stops, and announced in June 2021 that a Mirai had managed to cover more than 600 miles with a single fill. Even high-end electric cars tend to max out at around 300-400 miles.

The nose of the Toyota

Rakish nose and dynamic lines: More Lexus premium than Prius piety. Image: TOYOTA

On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to build an electric charging station than a hydrogen fuelling station. The EV charging infrastructure is much more developed, and you can even charge up electric cars at home. Only 11 hydrogen-fuelling stations currently exist in the UK, most of them in the south of England. It costs about the same to fill up a hydrogen tank as it would to fill up a petrol car, which is fine, but also means that electric cars have the edge on running costs.

Then there’s the whole question of how you’re getting your hydrogen. In theory, you can produce it by splitting water, using electricity, but it’s an expensive process, and almost all hydrogen is currently generated from fossil gas. This is cheaper, but very energy intensive (temperatures of 700-1,100 °C are required) and not particularly efficient. Hence Elon Musk tetchily telling a room of reporters in 2015: “I just think [hydrogen fuel cells] are extremely silly… Why would you do that? It makes no sense.”

Others disagree. Technological advances are made every year, and infrastructure always takes time to put in place –  but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build it. Why not give consumers a choice, and incentivise progress in more than one direction, to aid the shift away from fossil fuels? Besides, there are applications for hydrogen fuel cell tech, such as long-haul trucking and buses, for which quick refuelling and longer distances between refills are huge benefits.

The word fuel cell on the car

We are lovers of automotive typography. Image: TOYOTA

That’s all very well, but Toyota chief engineer Yoshikazu Tanaka has gone on record saying he wants customers to choose the Mirai “simply because I wanted this car – it just happens to be an FCEV [fuel cell electric vehicle].”

At £49,995-64,995, depending on the trim, the Mirai is a decent competitor to any other saloon-style car in the same price range, and if you live close to a hydrogen station, there’s little inconvenience involved. Let’s be honest, though. The biggest reason to buy is still the ‘wow’ factor. If you drive a Mirai, it’s probably because you get a thrill nerding out on the science going on under the hood, and knowing that you could be helping pave the way for a greener future.

With that in mind, would it have killed the manufacturers to add a few more futuristic flourishes to help boost that sense of awe and excitement? That’s not the path that Tanaka and his team have taken; no doubt many others would be put off by sci-fi styling; and the grown-up inside this reporter appreciates how solid, sleek and reliable the Mirai feels. The inner kid, I’ll admit, wants the aesthetics to remind her that she’s boldly crossing new frontiers.