Sales of battery electric vehicles are on the rise across Europe, and according to the annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report, more are sold each week today than in all of 2012. But despite this growing popularity, shortages of key battery components including lithium, nickel and cobalt, could threaten the supply. So is it time to focus on hydrogen?
Unlike Europe, where there are only a handful of hydrogen cars for sale and around 228 filling stations, Asia is betting on hydrogen. The Japanese government plans to have 800,000 hydrogen cars on the road by 2030, while China has set an ambitious target of one million vehicles by 2035.
These pioneers are likely to reduce costs, increase volume and expand the supply chain.
Automakers also remain divided, and with the exception of Toyota and Hyundai, few are investing heavily in hydrogen. Recently, however, BMW has renewed its interest and sees hydrogen cars as a role to play alongside battery electric cars. They plan to launch a small number of BMW iX5 Hydrogens worldwide from the end of this year, for trial purposes initially.
“As a versatile energy source, hydrogen has a key role to play on the road to climate neutrality”says Oliver Zipse, Chairman of the Board of BMW AG.
The Stellantis group has also undertaken limited production of hydrogen-powered commercial vans. But not everyone agrees; Mercedes, like Audi, has stopped plans to market hydrogen fuel cell cars.
What is the difference between an electric car and a hydrogen car?
Simply put, a battery electric vehicle is powered by electricity stored in a battery and recharged by connecting to the mains.
A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle generates its own electricity through a chemical reaction in its fuel cell. This electricity then drives the motor and the only emission is water vapor. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are refueled at specific filling stations.
The advantage of a hydrogen car is that it can refuel in the same time as a petrol or diesel car, has a similar range and emits zero.
So why does hydrogen struggle to catch on? Hydrogen faces a number of challenges, ranging from low efficiency to high costs.
Low efficiency due to large energy losses
The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is through electrolysis, which involves using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. But this process consumes a lot of energy and its yield is far below 100%.
When you transport the hydrogen to a filling station, the losses are even greater, and although you can avoid the transport phase, the cost of storage is also high.
It is estimated that when you drive on the road and the hydrogen is converted into electricity in the car, only about 38% of the original electricity is used.
The main selling point for hydrogen cars is that they can be filled up in minutes, but it is very difficult to find a place to fuel such a car. Herein lies the chicken and egg problem: who will buy hydrogen cars if there are no filling stations? And who will invest in gas stations if there are no cars available?
The initial investment risk of building infrastructure is far too high for a single company. Solving this problem will likely require planning and coordination between governments, industry and investors.
Hydrogen is highly flammable
Hydrogen is highly flammable, difficult to store and poses a safety risk in the event of an accident. However, car manufacturers such as Toyota insist that fuel cell electric cars are as safe as conventional vehicles.
The Japanese automaker has spent many years testing hydrogen cars in extreme conditions and temperatures to ensure they can be used safely and reliably.
Which hydrogen cars can you buy?
While new electric cars are regularly launched, there are only two hydrogen cars for sale in Europe: the Hyundai Nexo SUV and the Toyota Mirai.
Hydrogen cars are not only expensive to purchase, but also to supply fuel. The size of their costs compared to charging an electric car also varies significantly from country to country.
What does the future hold for hydrogen cars and electric cars?
The question of whether the two technologies have their place has not yet been decided.
Low consumption electric cars are not without problems: they are expensive to buy and recharging can take a long time.
Furthermore, EVs may not produce tailpipe emissions, but the battery’s power sources, recycling of its components, and vehicle and battery manufacturing contribute to carbon emissions. Finally, the extraction of many raw materials raises ethical and environmental issues.