Tilting at Tesla: how hydrogen may eventually replace batteries in cars

Hydrogen Sector 03.12.21
Written by: HYCAP

Toyota is taking orders for its latest hydrogen vehicle in North America, the 2022 Mirai. The attractive vehicle, described as more of a Lexus than a Toyota, has received some very favourable reviews in terms of performance, features, comfort and looks.

Its 182-horsepower engine boasts 221 pound-feet of torque and a range of 402 miles.

While much of the world’s attention has been on the transition to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) from petrol and diesel cars, some of the biggest carmakers in the world continue to pursue hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFEV). Hyundai has sold over 1,000 of its FCEV SUV, called the NEXO, in Europe since launch in 2018, and has said the new version of the fuel cell power system will be twice as powerful, 30% smaller and cost half as much as the current version.

There are some clear dividing lines in the battle for the future of transport. Currently, batteries look likely to dominate the automobile – as well as upstarts like Tesla, the old guard, such as Volkswagen and Ford, are all backing the technology.

Big and heavy vehicles, buses, trains, shipping and ultimately aircraft are all firmly in the hydrogen camp – batteries are too heavy, too slow to charge, and offer limited range.

In the middle are larger passenger vehicles, vans and small trucks where neither side has a decisive lead and, depending on use, vehicles powered by both technologies could prosper in the short-term.

However, if we look further out, hydrogen could come to dominate smaller passenger cars too.

Batteries have got a leap on hydrogen mainly because of refuelling infrastructure. Electricity is everywhere in urban environments and setting up a new recharging station is relatively cheap and straightforward. That is not always going to be the case.

Hydrogen refuelling facilities are initially being built in hubs such as ports, truck or bus depots and warehouses, to serve the vehicles that frequent them, but retail hydrogen pumps can quickly follow.

Much of the needed infrastructure is already there at existing petrol stations and the logistical challenges are very similar.

Thanks to hydrogen’s status as the technology of choice for decarbonising so many other parts of the economy, from transport to heavy industry to home heating and cooking, it’s eventual ubiquity will make it an ever more obvious choice for cars.

Remove the refuelling issue and the advantages of electric cars over hydrogen quickly fade. Considering that the drive to move away from hydrocarbons in transport is climate change, batteries are an environmental disaster. Research from Berylls Strategy Advisors found that the manufacture of an electric car battery weighing 500kg emits 74% more carbon dioxide than producing a conventional car in Germany.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research estimates that a mid-range EV car with a 40 kWh battery bought in Germany in 2019 would need to drive 52,000 km before its lifetime emissions fell below that of comparative diesel or petrol vehicle. For luxury EVs with large batteries (120 kWh) that increases to 230,000 km.

Mining the cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese, graphite and copper in places like the DRC needed to manufacture batteries has a sizeable environmental and social cost.

Mining the cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese, graphite and copper needed to manufacture batteries also has a sizeable environmental and social cost. Many of the companies that produce them have poor environmental and human rights records, while the countries where they are mined, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, are poorly equipped to defend their workforce.

Batteries also produce a great deal of waste at the end of their lives. Recycling toxic materials, such as lithium, is notoriously difficult, not to mention expensive compared with mining it. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, batteries degrade over time and are expected to lose about 30% of their capacity over a warranty period of about 8 years or 100,000 miles.

Elon Musk has been typically snarky about hydrogen FCEVs, describing them as “fool cells” but if everything he said was true, we would already be living in a world of self-driving cars and mainly using Dogecoin to pay for them.

Let’s not underestimate the challenges to overcome before hydrogen becomes a mainstream choice for passenger vehicles. As well as refuelling infrastructure, costs need to come down significantly. That is likely just a matter of time, according to Hyundai, which predicted in September its fuel cell system could reach cost parity with battery power by 2030.

Hydrogen FCEVs are going through a similar phase to what BEVs were 10 years ago, according to José Muñoz, chief operating officer for the Seoul-based automaker and head of its operations in the Americas.

“At that time people were still asking, ‘Is this going to happen? This is not true. We don’t have infrastructure. People won’t like it’,” Muñoz told Forbes earlier this month.

“Hydrogen is going through a similar phase—the phase of introducing a new technology. We need better (fueling) infrastructure because it’s still very limited.

However, in terms of the reaction by the consumer, when they drive a vehicle that is powered by hydrogen, there is a fantastic reaction.”

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