Here’s how an off-road racing series will make its own hydrogen fuel

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / Extreme E travels to remote locations by boat and brings its own energy infrastructure with it. Currently, it makes its own hydrogen on site and uses that to charge EV batteries, but in 2025, the cars will switch to hydrogen fuel cells.
Colin McMaster / LAT Images

ANTOFAGASTA, Chile — On a picnic bench in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the most remote locations on Earth, Alejandro Agag is holding court.

“Welcome to the edge of the world,” he laughs, gesturing toward the vast desert around him. A gust of wind kicks a cloud of sand and dust across the table. “It’s amazing, this place.”

The 53-year-old Spanish entrepreneur is taking in the sights and sounds of the season 3 finale of Extreme E, the off-road electric racing series he launched in 2021. Part of the series’ ethos is that it races exclusively in regions of the globe that are heavily impacted by climate change (such as the Atacama Desert—the driest, non-polar region on Earth), typically with no spectators present.

And while the competition during the finale is dramatic—with five of the series’ 10 teams in contention to win the championship—racing has taken a firm backseat this weekend. Conversation instead has centered on Agag’s recent proclamation that Extreme E will rebrand as Extreme H in 2025, becoming the first racing series powered fully by hydrogen.

“We want to be the first to be doing it,” says Agag, holding his hand up to shield his face from the still-swirling sand. “The challenge is there, and we love challenges—the challenge of working with a whole new technology, relevant technology that can have real, huge uses in the economy in general.”

The races are short heats on off-road courses.
Enlarge / The races are short heats on off-road courses.
Extreme E

Agag is no stranger to pioneering new racing technology: He is also the founder and chairman of Formula E, which was the first all-electric racing series when it debuted in 2014. To bolster his credibility in establishing Extreme H by 2025, Agag recently announced that the fledgling series would be joining a working group with Formula 1 and the International Automobile Federation (FIA) to further explore the development of hydrogen fuel. Extreme H is also slated to gain FIA World Championship status by 2026.

“My idea, my pitch, for Formula 1 was to say, listen, you don’t know which technology will be the winning one,” Agag explains. “For the moment, you are betting on synthetic fuels… but hydrogen is going to be, maybe, one technology that could be part of the equation. So that’s all that it is, for Formula 1 to keep an eye on what’s going to happen here. And what’s going to happen is we’ll have the first—and, I think for quite a while, the only—pure hydrogen world championship racing.”

In many ways, the working group makes a lot of sense: Five of Extreme E’s existing 10 teams have direct or tangential ties to Formula 1, with the likes of McLaren, Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, and Jenson Button among its team owners. And the use of hydrogen has become an enticing prospect for all of motorsports, partly because it can be used in combustion engines (“They [Formula 1] like noise… and combustion makes noise!” Agag laughs).

Of course, using hydrogen exclusively to fuel a racing series is no small feat, and other hydrogen-based projects have been plagued by setbacks and delays in recent months. Most notably, the Le Mans hydrogen class has already been delayed to 2027, citing safety concerns.

But Extreme E believes its style of racing—short sprints that last approximately 10 minutes—is perfectly suited to showcasing and testing the power of hydrogen fuel cells, and the series’ leadership is confident that after initial testing last month, they will be running their first fully hydrogen race by February 2025.

At Extreme E's race site in Atacama Desert, a series of solar panels are set up in the center of the race site.
Enlarge / At Extreme E’s race site in Atacama Desert, a series of solar panels are set up in the center of the race site.
Gregory Leporati

Getting all the operations up and running in only 13 months certainly won’t be easy, though. “Switching that one letter to H means we have to switch a million other things,” Agag says.

Scaling up

From Extreme E’s inception, hydrogen has played a major role in the event, though largely in its impressive off-track logistics. The series stages its races in some of the world’s most remote regions, powering its entire operation—from charging cars to catering to on-site restrooms—through sustainable fuels, particularly clean hydrogen. The setup makes the series feel almost like a traveling science fair experiment.

“It’s a real challenge,” says Andy Welch, Extreme E’s energy and utilities manager. “For season one, we designed a system that had a bespoke hydrogen fuel cell producing enough energy to fully charge the cars. For the rest of the site, we power in a more traditional way with generators, using renewable diesel, or hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO).”

In the two seasons since, the series adopted solar panels and hybrid generators to add to its makeshift power grid. Extreme E also further developed its own hydrogen fuel cell (which, according to Welch, could theoretically power the entire setup on its own at this point) and refined its abilities to transport large quantities of hydrogen safely, notably eliminating the use of hydrogen as a gas.

A look at Extreme E's power grid, which is situated at the center of its racing sites and uses a combination of hydrogen and solar power.
Enlarge / A look at Extreme E’s power grid, which is situated at the center of its racing sites and uses a combination of hydrogen and solar power.
Gregory Leporati

“What we have here now is a really cool system,” Welch continues. “An American company, Element 1… they mix biomethanol with distilled water so that we can transport the hydrogen between the events as a liquid fuel, like gasoline. So that system takes a pre-mix of methanol and water, the reformer converts it into green hydrogen, the fuel cell immediately receives that green hydrogen and turns it into electrical energy—and that’s it!”

But as 2025 rolls around and the series’ demands for hydrogen go up with the introduction of the new Extreme H cars, Welch expects some difficult decisions will have to be made. In the long term, he would like to continue producing hydrogen on-site as is currently done, but there are challenges.

“The fuel cell system on the car requires a very high purity of hydrogen, which we can do,” Welch says. “But we’d need to invest in more infrastructure with the reforming system.”

As a result, Welch anticipates the series will bring in hydrogen from an external supplier during the first season of Extreme H.

“We’ve got to minimize the risk of any problems with that championship in its first year,” he says. “The easy way, which we’ll probably take, is to get NEOM [a Saudi Arabian-based green hydrogen provider] to give us a tube trailer of hydrogen to refuel the cars.”

Beyond racing

The hydrogen used in Extreme E is transported as methanol.
Enlarge / The hydrogen used in Extreme E is transported as methanol. “Quite an interesting solution,” says Andy Welch, the series’ energy and utility manager. “This is something being adopted by the marine industry… Compressed gas is a real headache.”
Gregory Leporati

While the emphasis of Extreme H will be racing, the series’ leaders are looking much more broadly at how the race could promote hydrogen power. Ali Russell, Extreme E’s managing director, notes that one of the primary goals is to dispel general myths about hydrogen’s safety.

“They talk about the explosive nature of hydrogen, the Hindenburg and those connotations,” Russell says. “What we’ve got to do is break that down, show the performance of the vehicles—but also the fact they can be so resilient with some of the crashes that you have in these championships.”

Russell also stresses that the move toward hydrogen is not a rejection of electricity as a long-term energy solution but rather a complementary piece of the overall global puzzle.

“There are other parts of the world that are naturally suited for hydrogen,” he explains, “because they can create their own hydrogen… and they simply don’t have the type of infrastructure to go fully electric. It’s just a different solution.”

Enlarge
Extreme E

Of course, major commercial interests are also at stake here, and Agag is not shy to lean into that. Extreme E is partners with NEOM, which has ambitions to supply clean hydrogen to underdeveloped parts of the world and global industries alike.

“We see a big, big business opportunity in hydrogen,” Agag says, who adds that he strongly feels economic gain is not mutually exclusive with saving the planet. “For me, it’s no different… If it’s not commercial, you’re not going to save anything. The only things that work are things that work commercially.”

Looking ahead

As far as racing is concerned, Extreme E officials don’t expect the switch to hydrogen to bring about any major changes to its current format (which are essentially four-lap races with a driver swap after the first two laps; each team consists of a male and female driver). There will be modest power enhancements to the car, as well as cosmetic ones (“It’ll look cool, it’ll look futuristic,” Russell says), but the overall racing will remain the same.

The globe-trotting series plans to host most of its races in Europe next year to cut down on travel during its transition to Extreme H, but the series will resume its wider schedule in 2025 and beyond.

The cars get airborne a lot—and sometimes crash.
Enlarge / The cars get airborne a lot—and sometimes crash.
Extreme E

If this year’s championship decider in the Atacama Desert is any indication, the racing is compelling (and unique). Going into the final heat of the weekend, teams Rosberg X Racing and Acciona | Sainz XE were nearly tied in overall championship points, setting up a dramatic showdown.

As the lights went out on the final sprint, both teams suffered massive damage in shocking crashes—Sainz crashed out while battling for the lead, while Rosberg ultimately overcame a punctured tire to limp home in second place to take the overall season crown.

“You see the kind of racing we have here—it’s not Mickey Mouse racing,” says Agag, who seemed quite pleased with season 3’s finished product. And as the series looks ahead to its ambitious switch to hydrogen, he emphasizes that the racing is ultimately what’s most important here: Without a compelling product, the push to lend mainstream credibility to alternative fuels could fall on deaf ears.

“This is real racing,” Agag adds, the desert winds once again swirling. “These guys and girls are going for it—it’s risky, it’s tough, it’s real.”

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