Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) powered cars have been an industry futurama for decades. Manufacturers claim that one day we’ll all be driving H2 powered vehicles that emit only water. But hydrogen is actually a poor choice for vehicles, so why have manufacturers promoted the technology over straight forward batteries?
Let’s take a look at the evangelised benefits of hydrogen vehicles in more detail:
Not so fast. H2 can be pumped into a tank nearly as quickly as petrol or diesel, but it’s not so straight-forward. Because hydrogen is so light, it has be kept at outrageously high pressures (around 10,000 PSI). This ultra high pressure adds complexity, cost, inefficiency and risk to the entire process.
While this is currently true for the most part, longer range is rapidly becoming an obsolete issue. EV battery range has progressed much faster than anyone (except Elon Musk @ Tesla) predicted.We’re probably only a generation away from EVs with ranges that surpass that of HFC vehicles.
The operating mode
When it comes to refueling, hydrogen has to be purchased at a refueling station in exactly the same way as conventional vehicles . The fuel itself is created using some big heavy industrial plants. Then it’s shipped via tankers to refuelling stations. And then it’s sold to customers along with chocolate and lottery tickets. In fact, it’s almost a like for like substitution from a customers perspective. This makes sense to auto manufacturers, and for years they assumed that this was the solution vehicle owners would be willing to adopt.
The entire refuelling economy is protected
Refineries change to H2 reformering or electrolysis plants and the tanker drivers use modified tankers and refueling stations add new pumps. In the H2 economy, everyone in the existing chain from fuel to vehicle profits every time a vehicle is refueled. This is a powerful driver and one that is threatened by the shift to the battery-powered electric vehicle.
A Hydrogen Fuel Cell can be built on an assembly line. It’s a combination of piping, filters and metals that are pieced together to create a power supply. Automotive engineers have spent the last 100 years perfecting the art of building such innovations at high speed – and high margins.
Despite the fact that HFCs contain expensive metals, companies saw a route to profitability which they just didn’t see with batteries. Until recently, global battery manufacturing capacity wasn’t anything near what we know today. Almost all of this capacity is coming from the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean firms with years of experience in lithium ion production.
The true issue with hydrogen though is efficiency. Let’s look at the ideal scenario for H2, one where the hydrogen is made through a process of water electrolysis using renewable energy. We’ll also assume that the hydrogen is created, compressed and stored at the refuelling site itself. Assuming we start with 100kWh of cleanly generated renewable energy:
This is almost a 75% loss from the wind turbine to your car in the best-case scenario. Hardly impressive. This also accounts for costs that equate to eight times more to travel a mile in a HFC vehicle than it does in a BEV.
For comparison let’s look at a Battery Vehicle:
A total of ~26% loss. If compared to hydrogen using the same power grid, we can power three times as many electric vehicles than HFC cars for the same amount of energy.
To summarise, hydrogen is a poor choice for passenger vehicles. Interestingly, this may not turn out to be true for future passenger aircraft. We’ll get back to you on that one …
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