Are Hydrogen Vehicles the next Big Thing?

Are Hydrogen Vehicles the next Big Thing?

You may not see a lot of hydrogen vehicles around town, but by 2050 they could be the most popular way of moving around. Good news for the planet since green hydrogen is produced with renewable energy sources. How does hydrogen power a car? Why are hydrogen vehicles having a hard time taking off? What are their advantages compared to electric vehicles? And what challenges remain? Here are the questions we’ll be answering in this post dedicated to the new generation fuel.

Why is hydrogen so amazing?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, yet difficult to find on Earth. Which is a shame because it’s a very useful gas, and also a rather practical way of storing renewable energy. Luckily, human ingenuity overcame this natural obstacle in 1800, when two Englishmen, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle, discovered water electrolysis. What’s that? Simply the separation of water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen when passing an electric current through the water between two electrodes. To run the electrolytic cell, electricity is needed, and that’s where things become interesting.

The problem with renewable energy sources is their intermittency. If it’s a cloudy day, your solar panels won’t be of any use, and if there’s not a whiff of wind, your wind turbines will stay completely static. One solution engineers have found is combining different sources so that one can take over the other if it’s not working. But imagine none of your green solutions are pumping any energy on a particular day, then you’re still occasionally left stranded. This conundrum would be solved if only we knew how to store large amounts of energy over long periods of time.

Enter hydrogen. As I was saying before this brief renewable interlude, electricity is needed to run the electrolytic cell that creates hydrogen. It can either be generated by fossil fuel, or renewable energy sources. In this second case, when solar panels, wind turbines, and all their congeners, produce a surplus of electricity, it is used to feed an electrolytic cell that creates hydrogen which can be compressed and stored either as a liquid or a gas. Then, on rainy days, the chemical energy contained in the hydrogen can be turned back into electricity by  combining it with oxygen thanks to a fuel cell, thus solving the intermittency pickle.    

The other great things about this process are that:

  • the electrolysis also produces oxygen and heat which can be used to power other infrastructure;
  • the fuel cell only emits water vapour.

The European Commission has described hydrogen as an energy carrier with “great potential for clean, efficient power in stationary, portable and transport applications.” You may have noticed the little red car in my diagram: yes, hydrogen can be used to power vehicles. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are equipped with a fuel cell which combines compressed hydrogen gas stored on board with oxygen from the air to generate electricity which powers the car’s electric generator. Because there is no combustion, no polluting nitrogen oxides are produced, and because there is no carbon in the fuel to begin with, no hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide are emitted from the tailpipe.

The hydrogen vehicle boom

By 2032, more than 22.2 million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be sold or leased worldwide, according to Research and Markets’ latest report, generating revenues of over $1.1 trillion for the auto industry. By 2050, Information Trends projects that hydrogen vehicles will become the fastest-growing segment of the automobile market.

Looking at the current FCEV market, it’s hard to imagine these numbers coming true one day. There are only three commercially available models: the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Tucson FC and the Honda Clarity, and sales are ridiculous. But if you dig deeper, there are several signs that hydrogen is on the rise:

1/ The commitment of important actors

The Japanese brand Toyota, the biggest car maker in the world, has been betting on hydrogen for years with its Mirai. In fact, since the 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, the whole country is trying to switch from nuclear to hydrogen power. Yoichi Masuzoe, governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, has created a $350 million fund to subsidise FCEVs and charging stations, and plans to have most of the 2020 Olympic Games infrastructure running on fuel cell power. “I want to leave a hydrogen society as a legacy for the next Tokyo Olympics”, he recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Across the ocean, two other automakers, General Motors and Honda, announced in January the construction of a $85 million fuel cell manufacturing plant outside Detroit. It will allow them not only to share intellectual property, patents, and R&D expenses, but also to leverage economies of scale to reduce fuel cell development and manufacturing costs.

Meanwhile, Shell Oil has implemented hydrogen stations in Germany, the UK and the USA, and is assessing the potential for similar projects in Canada, Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Stijn van Els, management board chairman of Shell Deutschland Oil, called hydrogen a fuel of the future”.

An FCEV driver charging his vehicle in a Shell station in Germany

If such big mobility actors have decided to join the hydrogen game, then there’s got to be some potential in the field.

2/ The 2020 goals

If 2050 seems far far away, some major landmarks should take place in 2020, if all goes according to plan. Japan will host its hydrogen Olympic Games, GM and Honda will power up their manufacturing plant, the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership will boast 50 refuelling stations, California 80, and Germany will have reached 100.

3/ The advantages of FCEVs over BEVs

While FCEVs have been in development for decades, they only recently attained performance and range numbers good enough to replace gas-powered cars. But while this is also true for battery electric vehicles (BEVs), this second mode of eco-friendly transport has a much higher adoption rate.

 FCEVsBEVs
ChargingRefilling the hydrogen tank takes 3 to 5 minutesBatteries need to be recharged for several hours
PollutionOnly emits water vapourDoesn't emit anything
RangeUp to 650 km, and Toyota is currently working on a 1000-km-range vehicleUp to 500 km
PriceFirst prices at around 50000 €First prices at around 7000 € (Renault Twizy)

This comparison reveals two advantages of FCEVs over BEVs: the range and the refuelling time. While BEVs are practical for daily trips after having been left to charge all night in one’s garage, they are less so for long-distance journeys. As Robin Hayles, manager of sustainable fuel development at Hyundai, would say, FCEVs have the advantages of petrol and diesel in terms of range, performance and refill times, and the advantages of an electric vehicle: zero emissions, very smooth to drive, and instant torque”. The best of both worlds, but at a certain price. The major reason why BEVs are more popular than FCEVs is that they’re a lot cheaper to buy, and that recharging them costs about 25% of what it costs to fill a fuel tank, whereas the price of a hydrogen charge is equivalent to that of a full petrol tank.

Apart from range and charging time, another limitation of BEVs is their battery-storage capacity which prevents bigger vehicles, like trucks, from running on electricity. Hydrogen is thus going to have a major role to play in reducing the more-than-considerable pollution generated by heavy-duty transport. Toyota is already on it. With cooperation from actors like the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission, they recently launched Project Portal, a proof-of-concept test Class 8 semi-trailer (the biggest, heaviest truck) running exclusively on fuel cell power. Their hope is to revolutionise how ports across the world function.

Project Portal hydrogen fuel cell truck

While some people present BEVs and FCEVs as competitors, they actually complement each other and will need to work side by side to create a sustainable mobility future.

What challenges remain?

Though hydrogen vehicles are a brilliant invention, there are still some technology limitations to be overcome:

  • it takes a lot of energy to produce hydrogen through electrolysis;
  • the electrodes in the electrolytic cell are typically made from platinum which is very rare and expensive (around $ 1,500 a gram);
  • hydrogen is costly to store due to its tiny molecular structure and tendency to make metals brittle;
  • hydrogen is costly to pump due to the high pressures required, the resultant temperature variations that are caused, its flammability and tiny molecular structure.

But no doubt time and R&D will allow solutions to be found to enable a more widespread use of hydrogen.

At Autonomy, we support all forms of mobility that break with single-car ownership and fossil fuels. We believe that the urban mobility revolution is happening here and now thanks to what we call ADESA: Active mobility, Data analysis, Electric, Shared and Autonomous vehicles. To join the movement, take part in Autonomy 2018 which will take place in Paris, the center of new urban mobility.

Let’s get our cities moving !

To learn more: read Ross Douglas’ blog post on FCEVs

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