Hydrogen fuel cells and electric-powered vehicles are changing the way the world moves. With their green solutions and reduced carbon footprint, they are increasingly revolutionizing the automotive industry while reducing economic dependence on oil-producing countries. Today, vehicle manufacturing companies are adopting more sustainable and reliable energy sources, making environmentally-friendly fuel cells and battery-powered vehicles an integral component of their fleet.
Currently, electricity maintains leadership in the low-carbon car market, but hydrogen has proved to be of enormous value. In terms of ecological sustainability, both power solutions are leading-edge; they are carbon-free and they produce no pollution when driven. How do the two technologies compare in terms of efficiency, profitability, and conveniency? A reflection on three advantages and three disadvantages of each technology may help to shape an answer.
Hydrogen is easy to obtain in any amount; it is contained in water—therefore it’s a resource that is available in boundless quantities. It can theoretically be produced anywhere where there is water and a source of power; hydrogen fuel is not grid-dependent and fuel can be widely distributed.
Hydrogen vehicles have short refuelling times, which is comparable to conventional gasoline vehicles. The tanks of current models are refilled with pressurized hydrogen sold at hydrogen refuelling stations in less than five minutes. This reduces vehicle downtime and brings vehicle availability and flexibility in line with those of gasoline-powered cars.
Hydrogen vehicles benefit from lightweight tanks with a higher energy storage capability than batteries. This allows for a higher driving reach with no range anxiety. The fuel cell vehicles’ range is also not dependent on outside temperatures, so its energy power does not deteriorate in cold weather.
Hydrogen and fuel cells have been a polarizing topic in recent years. Despite proving viable for the automotive market, to the mind of the general public, fuel cell technology lags behind electricity. Due to its slow popularity, hydrogen-powered vehicle development has taken a back seat, resulting in limited demand and delayed advancements. Currently, hydrogen-powered cars are rolling out to buyers in small numbers, with only a view models available for purchase.
Because fuel cell vehicles are only beginning to enter the market, they present higher purchase, operating, and maintenance costs. As newcomers, the infrastructure to produce, compress, transport, and sell hydrogen is not as refined, with each stage costing more than existing electric infrastructures. The lack of an industrialized and economically-viable hydrogen and vehicle production is reflected also in the prohibitive cost of the vehicle, a major factor preventing current uptake—the few models already available are almost twice as expensive as fully electric or hybrid vehicles.
The scarcity of refuelling stations is probably the biggest disadvantage. Because of the complex infrastructure requirements, hydrogen refuelling stations are, at present, not widely available. The buildout of a fueling network is not only slow, but a much bigger investment than battery-powered vehicles stations require. The International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that it costs one to three million euro to build a refuelling station. Therefore, fewer investors would risk their capital to build stations for a currently unstable profitable business.
Battery-powered vehicles enjoy a persistent media hype and have become part of the automotive mainstream. Whereas fuel cell vehicles are still rare, electric vehicles are more widely produced and in-demand; they are expected to dominate the passenger vehicle market in the coming years. With over forty models available for purchase, the number of electric cars on the market far exceeds that of hydrogen vehicles.
Fully electric vehicles have already gone through their own growth curve over the past decade; production and maintenance costs have declined and volumes have increased. This has enabled a current lower purchase price when compared to fuel cell vehicles and a lower total cost of ownership than conventional vehicles, despite the higher upfront cost.
Battery electric vehicles recharge their batteries by plugging in, and can use any existing infrastructure to recharge, or take advantage of plug-in access at home. Because of the lower cost of electric charging stations, electric charging locations are widely available in countries worldwide, offering coverage and convenience similar to that of the rival petrol stations.
One of the main drawbacks of electric vehicles is long charging times. The vehicle must be plugged in for extended periods of time. Depending on the charging station and battery capacity, it can take up to several hours for a full charge, compared to the few minutes required for hydrogen refuelling. This generates a substantial vehicle downtime and represents hours of lost personal productivity over a longer period of time.
Although electric cars are now able to match fuel cell vehicles’ range, they require heavier batteries to carry them over long distances—energy stored in batteries necessitates more battery cells for each extra kilometre added to the vehicle’s range. This leads to an increase in both vehicle weight and charging times. Batteries also have a shorter lifespan than fuel tanks and need to be managed and replaced. This can negatively impact the environment, due to the difficult recycling of their parts.
Whereas hydrogen tanks undergo fast refilling without compromising lifetime, fuel cells maintain constant power at all times, keeping the vehicle running at full speed, independent of how much fuel is left in the tank. Battery lifetimes are affected by climate, overcharging, deep discharge and high charging/discharging rates. Battery-powered vehicles not only lose a percentage of their speed over the last half of the battery charge, but their power output also declines in colder temperatures, impacting the overall efficiency and predictability of the vehicle.
Overall, each technology couples together all the necessary elements to power and service the user to different extents. Despite some of their shortcomings, it is impossible to discount their many benefits—both systems are a viable replacement for most conventional cars, and have the potential to make sustainable mobility possible. The battle comes down to a case of convenience and reliability.
Hydrogen fuel cells may be a superior alternative to batteries, proving to be a more robust and reliable product at a higher purchase cost. The scarcity of refuelling stations, however, proves to be a complication for passengers who aim for the reach and freedom of conventional vehicles, making electric vehicles a more comfortable and affordable option. Currently, hydrogen may seem to remain marginal energy due to its complex and costly production, distribution, and consumption pathways. However, in the long run, the technology will experience a similar trajectory to electricity: towards a deployment across the entire automotive system. Current obstacles will also be easily offset by future developments, such as a rollout of hydrogen refuelling stations and more efficient and ecological battery solutions.
As the two technologies will continue to mature and manufacturing volumes to rise, prices and costs are to fall over time, with mass production enabling the two systems to achieve full parity in the low-carbon economy. Yet, some questions remain: will the automotive market accommodate for both evenly? Is there enough room for both technologies to grow in parallel and be utilized, or will we ultimately be forced to choose one?
Feature image © Polestar