A brief history of hydrogen mobility

Explore • Pulse #5 • 3 min
By Julien Thèves

Since the 18th century this chemical element – one of the most common in the Universe – keeps revolutionising mobility. A look back at the transport modes pioneering its exploitation.


French engineer Philippe Lebon predicted that “hydrogen gas” could be used as a “force applicable to machines”. However, it took almost two centuries for his vision to really become a reality.


Some internal combustion engines were running on coalbed methane, partly composed of hydrogen.


Airships used dihydrogen. This lighter-than-air gas enabled them to gain height, but it wasn’t used to provide forward thrust. It was the wind that naturally propelled those impressive craft. Today, dirigibles use helium, which is also lighter than air.


Swiss chemist Christian Schönbein discovered the properties of the electrolysis of water, which would form the basis of the fuel cell: by passing an electric current through water, the H2O molecules are split into dihydrogen (H2) and dioxygen (O2). Conversely, when hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell, it mixes with oxygen and generates an electric current, which can be used to power a vehicle, for example, while giving off water vapour.


A prototype fuel cell was developed. It was used as a model for the fuel cells on the Saturn rockets on the Apollo programme.


Japanese carmaker Mazda launched a research programme to run its rotary piston engines on hydrogen.


Boeing conducted its first test flight first test flight with an aircraft a hydrogen fuel cell.


Toyota launched the hydrogen-powered Mirai, with a refuelling time of just three minutes. The same year, China unveiled the first hydrogen-powered tram, with a capacity of 380 passengers.

find out more

Hydrogen, the fuel of the future?

6 min


This year also saw the launch of the world’s first hydrogen-powered taxis. Paris-based company Hype unveiled the initiative at COP21. In 2020, it aims to increase its fleet to 600 vehicles.


The first hydrogen-powered bicycle was introduced. Its extended range of 100 km (62 mi) and fast refuelling time of just 2 minutes make it a much better performer than the electric bikes that have been used in major cities since the 2000s.


The first Coradia iLint hydrogen-powered train built by Alstom entered service in Lower Saxony, Germany. It has a range of 1,000 kilometres (620 mi).


Several manufacturers have a stake in the hydrogen bus market, including Van Hool (Belgium), Solaris (Poland), Safra (France) with its Businova vehicle and Gaetano (Portugal) with Toyota technology.


Nikola Motors unveiled its hydrogen-powered truck. Available to lease – not buy – it has a range of 1,600 km (≈ 1,000 mi).


Skai, the first hydrogen-powered eVTOL air taxi, was launched by American company Alaka’i Technologies. It has a range of 640 km (400 mi) and a fast enough refuelling time to eventually make it a viable new form of shared mobility.


Toyota announces the arrival of a new generation of its Mirai car, with several thousand already sold worldwide. According to Toyota, however, it will be the end of the decade before hydrogen vehicles are available at the same price as hybrids.


Singapore-based company HES Energy Systems is currently developing the first hydrogen-electric aircraft for operation on inter-regional routes. It will be able to carry passengers and merchandise alike. The first prototype should be ready for testing in five years.


Un monde nouveau

A world of change

If we know one thing about the future of mobility it is that we can expect to see enormous changes in the coming decade. Roads that generate solar power, flying taxis, 1,000 km/h travel over land and robot railway staff are among the innovations on the horizon.

Pulse #1 5 min

Clean air pioneer

A leader in sustainable mobility, California’s Foothill Transit has set a goal to convert its entire 360‑bus fleet to electric by 2030. We discuss with Deputy Executive Director, Kevin Parks McDonald about Foothill’s operations and ambition.

Pulse #2 3 min