Thursday, December 7, 2023

Go hydrogen or go batteries: A constant comparison and debate in transport sector


The automotive world is keenly focusing on battery electric vehicles. But hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are as effectively zero-emission models as BEVs, at times, even more. Then why the hydrogen fuel cells are not getting that much attention as the BEVs?

In May 2021 was yet another interesting moment when Volkswagen Auto Group’s CEO Herbert Diess tweeted criticizing hydrogen cars and urging electrification of the traffic as the most sensible thing to do. Of course, responds to this tweet, the well-known fuel cells non-believer or should I say, in his own words, fool cell non-believer Elon Musk supporting Diess and calling Hydrogen a dumb form of energy storage for cars.

This got me thinking – Why this constant comparison and debate between hydrogen and batteries? Why would some prominent people in the industry so outrightly declare technology as a foolish idea? Is this a marketing strategy, trying to gain attention and influence the general public beliefs? To me, it seems nothing more than a publicity stunt! Battery and hydrogen debates are like two political parties against each other.

Why does it have to be either battery or hydrogen – not everything can be black or white. You don’t hear the solar industry dissing the wind industry. No technology can single-handedly be the answer to solving climate change. It doesn’t have to be battery vehicles OR hydrogen vehicles, it should be both, co-existing and complementing each other.

Lots of comparative studies talk about the need for additional infrastructure, costs and time to implement the hydrogen transition. They talk numbers (yes, today everything is about numbers!) showing efficiency losses in the process of producing, storing and transporting hydrogen and then making energy from hydrogen to run a car as compared to directly using electricity to run a car. And I agree with those numbers but imagine electrifying the complete fleet of cars and other transport modes in the world.

Is the electrical grid ready to take that? What about the capacity and stability of the electrical grid and the unpredictable demand curves due to the charging of all cars and trucks? And what about all the critical raw materials (e.g. cobalt, lithium) needed for the large scale production of batteries?

Certain raw materials are limited in resources and the recyclability of these materials is still very low. It is only sensible to welcome wholeheartedly both hydrogen as well as batteries in the transport sector. They satisfy different needs and complement each other. This would prevent overstressing any single infrastructure and depleting a single resource.

Hydrogen vehicles have the advantage of higher mileage, quick refuelling times and are lighter as compared to electric vehicles.

Hydrogen vehicles have the advantage of higher mileage, quick refuelling times and are lighter as compared to electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are more efficient but add considerable weight which matters in certain transport modes like heavy-duty, ships and aviation. Surely electric cars are the ideal solution for daily short distance commute but decarbonizing the entire transport sector cannot be done with batteries alone, hydrogen will play a big role here – which is why a lot of demo and commercial projects are already up and running to apply hydrogen in the transport modes.

Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME) is a flagship project involving about 50 organisations aiming to demonstrate the commercial potential of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) and hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS). Completing their first phase in 2021, they have compiled a rich database based on experience by deploying 630 hydrogens FCEVs and 37 new HRS with a publicly available report with all key findings. Some of the vehicles deployed and studied as part of the project are shown in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: FCEVs tested as part of the H2ME initiative

H2ME has confirmed hydrogen FCEVs are able to meet the operational needs of a wide range of users and are ready for commercial rollout with the main drawbacks being the purchase or lease price of the vehicle and H2 price.

As part of the project JIVE, 300 fuel cell buses are being demonstrated in 20 different cities across Europe [2].

Figure 2: Some examples of available fuel cell buses today

Not just road transport, hydrogen is being implemented in the aviation industry as well. Airbus aims to develop the worlds first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035 powered by hydrogen combustion with liquid hydrogen storage [3]. The six-seater Piper M-Class was retrofitted by ZeroAvia to run on hydrogen completed its maiden flight in late 2020 demonstrating that passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon. Alstom is already running the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train CoradiaiLint™. Another exciting development to look forward to is the fuel cell-powered version of the pickup Boot by James Glickenhaus that is expected to race the Baja 1000 in 2022.

Starting this article talking about hydrogen vs battery vehicles, I would like to end this article with an amusing story I came across. Two cars set off in September 2016 from Santa Monica, CA, heading for the Basecamp Hotel in Lake Tahoe, a 710 km trip. One of the cars was an FCEV 2016 Toyota Mirai and the second one was a BEV 2016 Tesla model X. The bet was on which of the two vehicles would reach the destination first, without racing.

Also Read: The time has come to say Hi to Hydrogen..!

(Rashi Mor is a renewable energy enthusiast with experience in PEM fuel cells system designing and testing. She is a hydrogen system technical consultant working in the Netherlands.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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