Technology

Is hydrogen the future of the car?

 By Mike Scott

With a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car setting new distance records in London, for distance travelled on one tank of hydrogen (about 400 miles), and for the longest journey, of more than 6,000 miles in six days – is hydrogen the future of the car rather than electric vehicles? Can the two technologies co-exist or will one predominate? If so, which is likely to emerge victorious…?

(Cover photo by www.popsci.com)

The fight between hydrogen and batteries to replace the internal combustion engine as the driving force in vehicle technology is in full swing.

If you look at volumes, electric vehicles (EVs) are currently winning the battle. Almost half a million were sold in 2015, according to research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). A small proportion of the entire car market, to be sure – just 0.6%. But it was a 70% increase on the year before. Virtually every car manufacturer is increasing the number of EV models it produces; ranges are improving and costs are coming down. One of the key components, lithium-ion batteries, are 65% cheaper than they were in 2010, reaching $350 per kWh last year, says BNEF. “We expect EV battery costs to be well below $120 per kWh by 2030, and to fall further after that as new chemistries come in,” the group adds.

BNEF says that EVs will be cheaper than internal combustion engine cars by the mid-2020s and EV sales will hit 41 million by 2040, representing 35% of new light-duty vehicle sales. This would be almost 90 times the equivalent figure for 2015, when EV sales are estimated to have been 462,000, some 60% up on 2014.

A new report on fuel cell vehicles from IHS Automotive forecasts

By contrast, the total number of hydrogen-fueled cars that have been sold to date is close to zero – market leader Toyota produced just 700 last year and is planning to make 3,000 in 2016. Game set and match to EVs, surely?

Not so fast. There is no doubt that hydrogen vehicles are a long way behind EVs in the battle for market share today. But there are signs that they could soon start to challenge for the mantle of low-carbon vehicle of the future.

Firstly, the world’s biggest carmaker, Toyota, has thrown its weight behind the technology with its Mirai model. Other manufacturers including Honda and Hyundai have also started making hydrogen cars and BMW is reported to be planning one as well, along with Audi. The first models are very expensive but they have one significant advantage over EVs – their range. While most pure EVs today cannot travel much more than 100 mi (161 km) on a single charge, hydrogen cars can travel around 350 mi (563 km) on one tank, putting them on a par with conventional cars. They can be refueled in a few minutes, too, unlike EVs, which take many hours (although fast-charging units can provide 80% charge in half an hour).

And recent developments suggest that hydrogen vehicles may soon outstrip petrol or diesel vehicles for range. A Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell car has recorded the longest continuous journey ever, a six-day, 9,810-km (6,096-mile) unbroken trip around the M25, the motorway that encircles London. It stopped only to refuel – and during the course of the record attempt, it also broke the record for the longest distance travelled by a fuel cell vehicle on one tank of hydrogen — 400 mi (643 km). This clearly trumps the current range of even the best-performing EVs, such as Tesla’s Model S, which has a range of around 270 mi (435 km). It is also better than the range of many petrol cars.

For both batteries and hydrogen, the energy they use will initially be produced using mostly fossil fuels, but over time the spread of renewable energy will make them truly clean sources of propulsion. But both produce no emissions at source (hydrogen cars emit nothing but water), so they help to make cities cleaner immediately by reducing local air pollution.

(Imagine by www.japantimes.co.jp)

The biggest barrier for hydrogen at the moment is the lack of refueling infrastructure, with just 671 hydrogen filling stations in operation around the world. This lack of infrastructure is true for EV charge points as well, but electric cars have an inbuilt advantage in that they can be charged anywhere there is an electricity supply and a plug, including your home and your workplace.

Charge points are a lot cheaper and easier to build than hydrogen fueling stations as well, so while both are being rolled out rapidly, EV infrastructure will be in place more quickly – unless the oil and gas majors that own the world’s gasoline stations decide to start selling hydrogen either in addition to petrol or diesel or instead of them.

Another advantage for EVs is that, while both hydrogen and batteries are stores of energy, the power in a battery can be fed straight back into the grid, giving cars a second function in helping to meet power demand. Hydrogen cars are more complex and unlikely to have this facility any time soon. This means that, although the costs of both are likely to fall rapidly in years to come, EVs are likely to always have an edge over hydrogen cars because they will be able to sell as well as buy energy.

Ultimately, which technology prevails will come down to a race. Can battery ranges rise and recharging times fall faster than a hydrogen infrastructure can be rolled out? That is certainly the way it looks at the moment.

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.