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Electric versus hydrogen: which will prevail?

Date: 06 September 2018   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

With electric vehicles branded as the future of automotive, do fuel cell cars still have a role to play? Rachel Boagey investigates.

Over decades of fossil fuel vehicle development for personal, passenger and commercial use, the most important consideration has always been that the transport is fit for purpose. 

Recent changes in technology have increased performance, carrying capacity and range without compromising convenience; however, environmental impact and increasing fuel costs are now a major consideration. 

Although the technology has been around for a number of years now, hydrogen vehicles that have been labelled as 'the next big thing' many times are still relatively unknown to many, and their share of the market is still very small. 

Compare this to electrification, which has seen a big push from governments, as well as a number of manufacturers investing in the technology, and it's easy to assume electric vehicles (EVs) are where the future is headed.

Limiting factors 

There are some practical downsides that have been limiting the uptake of hydrogen vehicles over the past few years; most notably, the fact that it's just so expensive to buy a car that runs off the stuff. Hence, hydrogen has been mostly limited to labs, where engineers keep trying to use it to make better vehicles.

"The biggest issues facing hydrogen vehicles in the UK are the lack of infrastructure, the very high cost of the vehicles, and the fact that there is an increasing choice of affordable, usable and stylish plug-in vehicles on the market that cost far less to run, which can be easily and conveniently charged at home, work or on the ever-expanding public network," explains Tom Callow, director of communication and strategy at EV charging company Chargemaster. 

2016_Toyota _Fuel _Cell _Vehicle _014

In the UK, there are only a handful of hydrogen filling stations, most of which are located at universities and other research institutions. In contrast, there are now more than 1,500 public electricity rapid chargers across the country, and around 14,000 further public charging points that are complemented by around 100,000 home charging points and thousands of workplace charging points for EVs.

"Compared to EV charging points, the cost and physical footprint of hydrogen filling stations is enormous. And while a charging point can supply electricity 24/7, only a handful of hydrogen cars can be refuelled from one storage tank before more hydrogen needs to be generated to refill the tank," says Callow.

Despite more than 100 plug-in models coming to market within the next three to five years, "relatively few future hydrogen fuel cell cars have been announced by manufacturers for future production", adds Callow. "I think this is a good indicator of where the car market is going." 

Another advantage of EVs over hydrogen, according to Callow, is that the cost is falling dramatically, with the luxurious and advanced Jaguar I-Pace now costing the same as the most basic hydrogen car, for example. But hydrogen is getting there slowly and, like all new technology, it's bound to take a while to reach a reasonable price. 

A positive future 

Paul Holland, chief operating officer at fuel card company Fleetcor, which is part of AllStar Business Solutions, has a different view on the future of the chemical element. "Hydrogen is an attractive alternative to the current fuel types on offer, predominantly because they put to rest the range anxieties that are brought about by other emerging fuels. Each full tank offers its driver around 300 miles, as conventional vehicles do," he explains. 

Hydrogen Car Concept

The other key advantage is that the only by-product of hydrogen as a fuel is water; however, Holland points out that the current method of producing this is inefficient. "If we can generate hydrogen using a suitable alternative source, we could have a fuel that is entirely free of carbon dioxide," he states. 

That being said, Holland points to one of the main factors that has hampered the uptake of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles: the lack of infrastructure to support their use. "While we are starting to see EV recharging points pop up across major towns and cities in the UK, there are much fewer places to refuel if you are driving a hydrogen vehicle," he says.

By the end of 2017, there were around 14,800 connectors in 5,100 locations for EVs compared with 11 refuelling sites across the UK that offer hydrogen. 

"What's more, these stations tend to be clustered around London and the south-west of England," says Holland. "So hydrogen vehicle owners who are based further afield, such as Newcastle, for example, have no local access to a suitable fuel station. The nearest one is located near Sheffield."

It's not that the UK Government hasn't recognised this severe lack of infrastructure. The Hydrogen for Transport Advancement Programme (HyTAP), a £23-million fund, launched in 2017 to accelerate the take-up of hydrogen vehicles by 2020, will include the roll-out of cutting-edge infrastructure, improving access to hydrogen for drivers. 

Exciting possibilities 

Although hydrogen is still in its infancy, Holland says Allstar Business Solutions ensures that it supports the development of alternative fuels, believing that hydrogen presents some exciting possibilities for the market.

"We do not believe that hydrogen-powered cars will replace all vehicle fuel types, but will instead complement them in the market. Each fuel type offers its own benefits, but hydrogen and EVs are certainly the best contenders to replace petrol and diesel as clean and sustainable options," he explains. 

Toyota Mirai

BusinessCar also spoke to Jon Hunt, manager of alternative fuels at Toyota, a company that is investing heavily in hydrogen being the fuel of the future. "Zero-emissions hydrogen, being inexhaustible, totally renewable, clean and the most energy-dense element, has long been recognised for its potential to exceed the performance of fossil fuels. But costs and practical issues of refuelling, fuel stack durability and on-board storage have been a barrier."

Toyota introduced the hydrogen-powered Mirai in 2015, which signalled a step change for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. "It has a fuel stack that requires virtually no maintenance and does not 'wear out', unlike conventional drivetrains or batteries, and uses lightweight, relatively easy to manufacturer tank technology. It is quick to refuel and the range is similar to conventional vehicles," explains Hunt. 

As a result of low production numbers, the individual vehicle cost is currently high but its whole-life costs are competitive, with purchase cost parity or better being forecast by 2025.

The Mirai is the result of over 30 years of electric powertrain development and is part of Toyota's hybrid development programme. The hybrid system was developed from the beginning as a modular platform to accommodate fuel cell integration. 

Paul Holland

"To provide the most long-term benefits of cost, refuelling convenience and efficiency, as well as to prove the durability and benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology, the Mirai was developed without the need for supporting technology, such as plug-in, that we believe is an unnecessary bridging technology," states Hunt. 

He also maintains that large-scale production is only possible with public acceptance of the technology and the provision of sufficient refuelling. "We have now proved the technical capability and public acceptance, so are scaling up production that will see vehicle cost parity in a relatively short time," he says. 

An unanswered question 

The question being batted around a lot at the moment is whether the future of transport is electric or hydrogen-based. But is that even the right question? 

"We do not believe that one single powertrain represents the future, as there will be many to suit individual customer mobility and commercial needs," says Hunt. "We are convinced, however, that renewable hydrogen is a very promising source of energy in transport not only for passenger cars, but also for trucks, buses, trains, fork lifts and industry applications, among others." 

Due to the properties and availability of hydrogen, Toyota believes that fuel cells provide the ultimate environmentally friendly solution. Importantly, the technology to achieve this is available now. 

"Hydrogen is already a significant component of the global economy and is set to become more important as we evolve into a hydrogen society," says Hunt. 

As for a future for hydrogen, he believes "It's an energy-dense and versatile element that is a by-product from many industrial processes, can be produced from waste, bioprocesses or water using zero-emission renewable energy. It will enable a large-scale uptake of renewable energy, and can be used directly to create heat and electricity on or off the grid. This will reduce the load on the grid and facilitate the better use of existing infrastructure."

The cleaner option 

A major bonus for hydrogen is that the only other zero-emission technology is electric batteries. "This is zero emission at the tailpipe, but ignores the emissions and environmental impact of securing the finite battery minerals and battery production, as well as battery charging," explains Hunt. 

"It is estimated that battery production for a 100kW battery, which might give a 300-mile range, produces between 15-20t of CO2, equating to over 80g/km of CO2 across 150,000 miles and with charging on the UK grid, for example, amounting to the equivalent of over
50g/km of CO2. This is not a zero-emission solution," he affirms.

Battery charging also requires the immediate availability of power at the source of charging and a rate that is sufficient for the battery. "This requires a very robust network and an immediate demand-response supply or huge on-site energy storage. We do not believe this is sustainable at scale."

Access to hydrogen is, of course, essential but millions of tons of hydrogen are already produced and distributed globally. For Hunt, "The challenge now is to match the current and future production, distribution and dispensing to the appropriate use." 

So what does the future hold for hydrogen and is it ever going to be more viable than electricity, or more importantly, the current conventional fuels?

Evolution not revolution 

The future profile of fuel types will almost certainly be far broader than we are used to. EVs and hydrogen may well be the long-term solution for cars, particularly for inner cities, but there are different challenges for other fleet profiles. "These will be addressed by other fuel types in the foreseeable future," Holland says. 

For the passenger car market, it's unclear whether hydrogen will ever play a major role. According to Callow, "A key reason that plug-in cars are a more attractive option than hydrogen cars, even in the longer term, is that a hydrogen car requires around four times as much electricity as an EV to generate enough fuel to drive every mile."

Holland says that while there are developments that need to be made before hydrogen is recognised as a viable fuel for vehicles, "much has been done to support its roll-out. It is only a matter of time before it gains real traction in the market." 

"Hydrogen is already a practical option as we speak," emphasises Hunt. "It is a matter of scaling but, in the case of Toyota, there are 74 Mirai in commercial use now in the UK, over 6,500 globally and we plan to be selling 30,000 per year globally in the early 2020s."

But, of course, the transition will take time with investments and infrastructure requirements, and it is neither practical nor desirable to throw away the money put into existing vehicle and support technology.

"There are some niche or interim solutions that can deliver short-term benefits that may be appropriate for some applications," Hunt says. "However, for long-term sustainability at scale and at an affordable cost, we do not see any other alternative."