Hydrogen

Sam Adham, Senior Powertrain Analyst

07 May 2020

There’s still hope for the fuel cell

FCEVs are losing the race against BEVs, but that’s not the end of the story.

We are often asked about the prospects for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so it would be pertinent to lay out an unbiased assessment.

Fuel cell vehicles are currently losing the race against battery electric cars, but there are a couple of critical limitations with BEVs that are very difficult to overcome, which may end up making the fuel cell a viable alternative in the long term.

Firstly, the issues of driving range and charging times: we have become accustomed to the freedom and convenience that an ICE car gives us. Refuelling takes a matter of minutes and provides several hundred more miles of driving. Replacing those advantages with a technology that does drive as far and takes longer to charge would be going backwards, as far as ease of use is concerned. Rapid advancements are being made, but even the best lithium-ion batteries today have an energy density of circa 300 Wh/L, which is only 3% of that of diesel and gasoline. We expect a major breakthrough in battery technology towards the end of this decade, but that is not guaranteed, and if it involves solid state batteries, charging times may not necessarily improve.

The other critical issue is battery production sustainability, especially of raw materials. Even putting aside the ethical concerns surrounding cobalt mining, lithium and nickel extraction are environmentally damaging enterprises.

Sustainability for FCEVs is an issue for now, but in a different way. Much of global hydrogen production is still via methane reformers, which defeats the point as they create CO2. However, cheap renewable energy will eventually make clean electrolysis widespread. Researchers are also successfully reducing the platinum group metal loading in fuel cell stacks.

There is a vast amount of investment directed at BEV development and researchers are rushing to intensify their efforts, but comparatively little is aimed at FCEVs. Economies of scale can be more easily achieved with BEVs.

Besides cost, the other roadblock is hydrogen infrastructure, and where the investment would come from. Governments are barely willing to provide incentives and funding for BEVs, but the underlying infrastructure and supply chain, including charging stations, is still built mostly by the private sector. The cost of hydrogen fuel stations (US$1-2 million) and the sheer effort needed to establish a clean, localised, large-scale hydrogen production and storage base means that it cannot be left to the private sector. Some governments are making positive statements, notably China for the first time, but there needs to be more of a tangible and coordinated effort into FCEV development, rather than throwing vast sums into making BEVs barely acceptable.

Meanwhile, some OEMs are deferring their research on fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines – Daimler is a recent example – while others, such as BMW and Toyota, are reaffirming their commitment.

Current circumstances only make FCEVs viable in a defined environment in fleet operation. The energy density advantage that FCEV has over BEV – payload capacity suffers under the weight and volume of the battery – means that the logical application in the short term is in Commercial Vehicles.

Despite the comparison made with BEVs, one must not see this as ‘BEV vs. FCEV’, but rather as ‘ICE vs. ZEV’. If future mobility is to be zero-emissions, BEVs cannot be the only solution, and are not suitable for all applications. Despite the colossal investment required to enable either powertrain, putting all your eggs in one basket is rarely a good idea, however tempting, when it comes to technology selection.

Our current view is that FCEV will start to emerge in earnest from around 2035, as shown in one scenario below. This is when we estimate renewable energy infrastructure to be sufficiently developed and able to facilitate a holistic hydrogen economy, without the need for a vast and potentially damaging battery production industry. Hydrogen has many other applications besides transport. In the end, this may be what swings the pendulum in favour of fuel cells. After all, hydrogen still has a lot going for it, on account of it being the most abundant element in the universe.

Acronyms:

BEV = Battery Electric Vehicle

FCEV = Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle

ICE = Internal Combustion Engine

ZEV = Zero Emissions Vehicle