Hydrogen based vehicles seem to only be a recent development, with just four mainstream hydrogen cars available from the past few years. However their existence has been around since the 19th century, as this article covers. If you’re only interested in recent developments though, feel free to click “Modern developments” below!

Table of Contents

Historical Times: 1802 to 1999

  • 1802: Sir Humphry Davy, a British chemist, discovered a chemical reaction which produced (amongst other things) hydrogen, which kick-started the principles behind fuel cells.
  • 1807: Swiss inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz created a four-wheel vehicle which was powered by hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas was stored in a balloon, a very primitive (but effective!) form of fuel cell!
  • 1839: Sir William R. Grove, a British lawyer, expanded on this work, creating a ‘gas battery’ - or in essence, creating a form of hydrogen fuel cell.
  • 1860: Etienne Lenoir - a Frenchman - developed the Hippomobile, a large transporter type vehicle with a hydrogen based combustion engine. It successfully went from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont in a 1863 test drive.

The French Hippomobile, from Wikipedia.org

  • 1933: after a bit of a lull, a Norwegian power company called Norsk Hydro converted one of their trucks to be hydrogen powered. It had a hydrogen store, and ‘fed’ the hydrogen into a combustion engine to power the forward drive.
  • 1939: British engineer Francis Thomas Bacon created a 5 kW fuel cell. This was the first ‘mainstream’ fuel cell created/announced in the 20th century.
  • 1941: due to fuel shortages from WWII, Russia converted 200 of their GAZ-AA trucks to run on hydrogen, which worked without any real issues and burned cleaner than gasoline fuel.
  • 1955: Thomas Grubb, a chemist working at General Electric, expanded Bacon’s fuel cell further, using a more effective electrolyte.
  • 1958: Leonard Niedrach (also at GE) took this further, using platinum in the process and creating the “Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell”. This was developed further, and used by NASA in Project Gemini (one of the projects used to ‘build up’ to the moonlanding Apollo project).
  • 1959: A Allis-Chalmers farm tractor was adapted by Harry Karl Ihrig to be fuel cell powered, containing 1,008 tiny alkaline fuel cells, providing 15 kWh of energy.
  • 1959: Bacon expanded his fuel cell work, taking his previously stationary fuel cell and making it movable, using it to power a welding machine
  • 1960s: Bacon’s fuel cell work - now patented - was licensed to be used for the US’ space programs throughout the 1960s, to supply electricity and drinking water.
  • 1966: A ‘Model A Ford’ was converted to be hydrogen powered (via the combustion engine) by Roger Billings, an impressive feat especially since this was a high school project!
  • 1966: in the same year, General Motors created the GM Electrovan fuel cell vehicle, the first mainstream hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on record. It had 5 kWh power and a 120 mile range. It was however not available for general purchase, and was instead used within GM’s property.
  • 1970s: a range of cars powered partially or wholly be hydrogen (either via combustion engines or fuel cells) were developed, including the Brigham Young Superbeetle in 1972, a Cadillac Seville which featured in US President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade in 1977, and the BMW 520h in 1979.
  • 1980s: more hydrogen based cars were produced, including two Mercedes vehicles in 1984 (a 280 TE dual-fuel car, and a TN 310 Van minibus).
  • 1994: the Mazda Miata was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show, a fully hydrogen fuel cell vehicle with 118 horsepower.
  • 1996: America launched the Hydrogen Future Act congressional act, one of the first large-scale acts aiming to increase hydrogen fuel cell research and developments.

A type 212 submarine, from Wikipedia.org

  • 1997: the Renault Fever was made between Renault and Citroen, with a 30 kWh fuel cell and a 72 mph top speed.
  • 1998: a German Type 212 submarine was built from this date on, being powered via compressed hydrogen fuel cells. It’s not quite a car (!), although it was a major breakthrough in the technology and awareness of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
  • 1998-1999: a large range of hydrogen powered vehicles were developed at the end of the century, including the GM EV1 Fuel Cell automobile, the BMW 728hL and 750hL, Ford P2000 FC (the World’s first full size, five-seat passenger fuel cell car) and various Honda FCX models.
  • 1999: Europe’s first publically usable hydrogen fuelling station opened in Hamburg, Germany.

Modern Developments: 2000 to present day

  • 2001: the first ‘large scale’ hydrogen storage tanks (700 bar/10,000 PSI) were unveiled. This was an important development as it’ll help to reduce the size of fuel tanks, and extend the potential range of fuel cell vehicles.
  • 2002: The Chinese Government invested $18 million for a 3-year PEMFC [fuel cell] programme, employing over 50 researches and engineers and leading to various improvements to catalysts, membranes and other fuel cell techniques.
  • 2003: the first hydrogen fuelling station in Iceland opened (albeit it closed 4 years later!). It powered three public transport vehicles and produced its own hydrogen.
  • 2006: A report by the World renowned IEEE was released which was fairly critical of hydrogen as an energy source, saying “Electricity obtained from hydrogen fuel cells appears to be four times as expensive as electricity drawn from the electrical transmission grid. … Because of the high energy losses [hydrogen] cannot compete with electricity.”
  • 2008: Honda released a demo of a purely fuel cell Honda FCX Clarity, claiming a 60% efficiency level and aiming to make the model one of the World’s first ‘mass market’ fuel cell car.

The Toyota Miria fuel cell car

  • 2010: The American Department of Energy (DoE) released research showing that the cost of fuel cells in cars has fallen by 80% since 2002, and that continued developments in fuel cell technology could mean hydrogen cars becoming cost efficient within a decade.
  • 2012: The fuel cell industry seen an 85% growth rate of fuel cell shipments, taking revenues to over $1 billion market value Worldwide.
  • 2012: The Hyundai ix35 FCEV, one of the first ‘mass market’ hydrogen cars apart from the Honda, was released and available for leasing.
  • 2013: A good year for American progress. In May, the Energy Department’s H2USA project was launched, aiming to advance hydrogen infrastructure. In June, the California Energy Commission spent $18.7 million for hydrogen refuelling stations. Later on, Governor Brown signed bill AB 8, offering $20 million a year for 10 years to fund up to 100 refuelling stations.
  • 2016: The Toyota Mirai (priced at $57,000) and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell (an enhancement of the FCX Clarity) were released for sale and leasing respectively.
  • 2017: America reaches 31 publically usable hydrogen refuelling stations (28 of which in California!), and Japan has 91 such stations.
  • 2018: The Mercedes-Benz F-Cell and Hyundai Nexo - both available as hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles - started becoming more available, with more reviews and test-drive thoughts hitting the web.