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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Hydrogen Cars Could Soon Compete With Electric Vehicles

  • The first mass-produced fuel cell car came to market in 2014, but a combination of high costs and a lack of funding means that hydrogen-powered cars have failed to go mainstream.
  • As the global hydrogen market grows, and particularly as governments pour money into green hydrogen projects, the potential for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles is growing.
  • Several of the biggest automakers have now announced new fuel cell developments and have made it clear that hydrogen cars will be a part of their offerings going forward.
Hydrogen Cars

While many automakers have been focused on developing battery electric vehicles (BEVs), another green alternative to traditional cars has been gaining momentum – the hydrogen-driven fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). Green hydrogen has been hailed as the clean fuel of the future in recent years, something that many automakers have considered while developing fuel cell cars. While there has been much talk about the rise of the FCEV, most companies are still in the early development stage. But now, some companies are ready to present their FCEV demonstration models to the public to see how they fare in comparison to the EVs on the market. 

Fuel cell electric vehicles work much in the same way as traditional BEVs, running on an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine (ICE). However, BEVs rely on a battery that needs to be plugged in to recharge, using electricity from the grid. Meanwhile, FCEVs can produce electricity onboard, without the need for charging. This is extremely attractive to car manufacturers looking to increase the range their cars can go without the need to charge, making it easier for consumers to shift from ICE vehicles to green alternatives. 

One of the major benefits of hydrogen is that it emits only water and heat, rather than greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere. With governments and energy firms worldwide pumping funds into green hydrogen projects, automakers are increasingly seeing the potential for cars to run on this clean fuel. To make climate-friendly FCEVs, automakers must ensure that the hydrogen they are sourcing is green, rather than grey – derived from natural gas. At present, the cost of green hydrogen is far higher than carbon-emitting alternatives. But as companies invest more in research and development, the price of green hydrogen is expected to fall, much in the same way as was seen in the cost of wind and solar energy as operations expanded. 

Despite the significant potential of FCEVs running on green hydrogen, the concept of a fuel cell is still relatively unknown in the consumer market. While most people have heard of BEVs by now, particularly since the Tesla boom, automakers have shared little information about the development of an HFCV fleet with consumers. This is likely due to the multitude of hurdles that still need to be overcome before HFCVs hit the market. For example, the size and weight of a fuel cell that can generate enough electricity to run a car or larger vehicle continue to be an issue. 

But some automakers are now taking their innovations to the public, demonstrating that they expect the future of transportation to be broader than just BEVs. In February, Honda announced it would be manufacturing a new hydrogen fuel cell system that it co-developed with GM. This is expected to support the growth of its hydrogen business, with aims of selling 2,000 units of the new system annually by the middle of the decade, and over 60,000 units a year by 2030. Honda expects its “next-generation system” to be more durable than previous fuel cells, and around two-thirds cheaper than existing options. 

Meanwhile, BMW has launched a demonstration fleet of hydrogen cars that use fuel cells from Toyota. Last month, the German automaker unveiled its BMW iX5 Hydrogen, with a top speed of over 112 miles per hour, which is currently being assembled in Munich. The company’s CEO believes this is “the missing piece in the jigsaw when it comes to emission-free mobility.”

Hydrogen is stored in two tanks, which can be refueled in three to four minutes, just like when pumping petrol. This provides the iX5 with a much greater range than most BEVs, at around 313 miles. BMW is planning for the launch of a small initial fleet in 2023 – fewer than 100 vehicles, mainly to be “employed internationally for demonstration and trial purposes for various target groups.” 

In addition to Honda and BMW, Toyota and Hyundai are two other major automakers looking to develop their FCEV capabilities to compete with car manufacturers focusing solely on BEVs. While the technology may be lagging behind that of electric batteries, the potential is significant. 

Toyota has been investing in its fuel cell technology for over 30 years and introduced its first FCEV to the market in 2014, the Mirai sedan. The new version of the Mirai, launched in 2021, provides an extended driving range of around 650 km, and uses green hydrogen, meaning no polluting emissions. And Hyundai outlined its 'FCEV Vision 2030' in 2018, aimed at acceleratingthe development of a hydrogen society. Hyundai hopes to produce 700,000 fuel-cell systems annually by 2030, including 500,000 units for FCEVs, creating 51,000 jobs in the industry. 

While the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles has lagged behind battery EVs, greater investment in the industry has supported the innovations needed to get HFCVs to the market. With more and more automakers broadening their vision beyond BEVs and investing in hydrogen, we can expect to see several HFCVs within the next decade, offering an attractive alternative to the battery EV. 

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By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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