HHydrogen is a fascinating substance, being the lightest element. When it reacts with oxygen, only water is produced and an abundance of energy is released. This invisible gas looks like the clean fuel of the future. Some of the world's top automakers hope it will usurp batteries as the technology of choice for zero-emissions driving.
In our EV myth-busting series, we've looked at a range of concerns, from car fires to battery mining, range anxiety to cost concerns and carbon emissions. Many critics of electric cars argue that gasoline and diesel engines should not be abandoned. This article asks whether hydrogen offers a third way and has the potential to overtake batteries.
Many of the strongest arguments for the role of hydrogen in the auto industry are coming from CEOs at the heart of the industry. Japan's Toyota is the most vocal promoter of hydrogen, with Chairman Akio Toyoda saying last month that he expects the share of battery cars to peak at 30%, with hydrogen and internal combustion engines making up the rest. Toyota's Mirai is one of the only widely available hydrogen-powered vehicles, along with Hyundai's Nexo SUV.
“Hydrogen is the missing piece of the jigsaw when it comes to emission-free mobility,” Oliver Zipse, president of German automaker BMW, said last year. BMW may be investing heavily in battery technology, but the company is testing the BMW iX5 hydrogen fuel cell vehicle despite using Toyota's fuel cells. “One technology alone is not enough to enable climate-neutral mobility around the world,” said Zipse.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but that doesn't mean it's easily available on Earth. Most of today's pure hydrogen is made by decomposing carbon from methane, which releases carbon. Zero-emission “green hydrogen” is produced through electrolysis. In other words, it uses clean electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
To use hydrogen as a fuel, it can be burned or used in fuel cells. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the air in the presence of a catalyst (often made of expensive platinum). This strips the electrons flowing through the electrical circuit and charges the battery, which can power the electric motor.
According to Jean-Michel Billig, chief technology officer for hydrogen fuel cell vehicle development at Stellantis, hydrogen enables refueling in four minutes, higher payload and longer range. (The Mirai can travel 400 miles on a full tank.) Stellantis, which began producing hydrogen vans in France and Poland last month, is targeting companies that want to use their vehicles all the time but don't want the downtime required to charge them. .
“They need to be on the streets,” Billig said. “If there are no taxis running, you will be losing money.”
Stellantis believes it can lower sticker prices. Billig said that although the company manufactures both, he expects “by the end of this decade, hydrogen mobility and BEVs will be on par from a cost perspective.”
Many energy experts do not share hydrogen carmakers' enthusiasm. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has described this technology as “sold by idiots.” Why use green electricity to make hydrogen when you can use the same electricity to power your car?
All energy conversion involves wasted heat. This means that hydrogen fuel necessarily provides less energy to the vehicle. (These losses are even greater when hydrogen is directly combusted or used to make electronic fuels that replace gasoline and diesel in noisy, hot internal combustion engines.)
David Sebon, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge, said: “With green hydrogen, it would take around three times more electricity to produce the hydrogen to power a car than just to charge the battery. “It will be.”
This may be a slight improvement, but not enough to cause problems with the battery. “It's hard to do anything much better than this,” Sebon said.
Michael Liebreich, chairman of Liebreich Associates and founder of analyst firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance, is an influential
“Hydrogen ladder” – A league table ranking the use of hydrogen in terms of whether there are cheaper, easier or more likely alternatives. He placed automotive hydrogen on the “doom row”, with little opportunity even in niche markets.
Can hydrogen overtake car batteries? “The answer is no,” Liebreich said without hesitation. He added that carmakers betting on a large share of hydrogen would be “completely wrong” and set for costly disappointments.
The main problem with hydrogen cars is not the fuel cells, but actually delivering clean hydrogen where it is needed. This gas is highly flammable, with all the attendant safety concerns, so it must be stored under pressure and easily leaks. It also contains less energy per unit volume than fossil fuels, so unless you use electrolyzers on site, you will need many times more tankers.
The United States and Europe are beginning to invest in hydrogen supplies with heavy government subsidies. But so far, it has been a chicken-and-egg problem. Buyers don't want hydrogen cars because they can't fill them up, and since there are no cars, there are no filling stations. According to the European Hydrogen Observatory, there are 178 hydrogen filling stations in Europe, half of them in Germany. In the UK, he compares nine hydrogen stations to 8,300 petrol stations or his 31,000 public charging locations (not including household plugs).
Are there any precautions?
So why does the International Energy Agency think hydrogen will account for 16% of road transport in 2050 on the path to net zero? The answer lies primarily in heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks .
Liebreich said he is so convinced that batteries will continue to dominate the energy supply for heavy-duty vehicles that he co-founded a truck charging company. “HGVs may contain hydrogen, but it will be in the minority,” he said.
Speaking to Autocar in October, even Toyota admitted that the use of hydrogen in cars has so far been “unsuccessful” primarily due to fuel supply shortages. said Hiroki Nakajima, technical director. Trucks and coaches have high hopes for the technology, and the company is also prototyping a hydrogen version of its Hilux pickup truck.
As government enthusiasm waxes and wanes, the economics of hydrogen will change as well. Other changes may occur. As technology improves (within limits), gas may become more attractive, and prospectors may be able to find cheap “white hydrogen” drilled out of the ground.
However, when it comes to cars, it seems like the deal has already been settled. Batteries are already the second choice after gasoline for almost all manufacturers. According to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers and Trade Association, fewer than 300 hydrogen cars will be sold in the UK over 20 years, compared to 1 million electric cars.
The battery advantage is likely to grow even further as research and infrastructure dollars address issues of range and charging time. Compared to that flood of investment, hydrogen is a tiny fraction.
Proponents of hydrogen now face the question of whether they can build a profitable business in transporting long-distance, heavy goods by road. They need answers soon about where they will get enough green, cheap hydrogen and whether that gas is better used elsewhere.