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Hydrogen-powered vehicles – the future of mobility?

Hydrogen-powered vehicles – the future of mobility?

Electric cars are consistently grabbing headlines and the attention of the automotive industry, but there may be a worthy competitor to claim the environmentally friendly mobility solution title. Hydrogen-powered vehicles have mostly been on the backburner thus far, but there are many experts who predict that the market will shift towards using hydrogen as a fuel in the coming decades – possibly as soon as 2030.

Fossil fuels have undeniably met much of the world’s energy needs thus far. However, as these already limited resources are over exploited and the true cost of emissions start to weigh on us all, the time has come to power up differently. Enter hydrogen, which makes up roughly 75 per cent of the universe.

Hydrogen-powered momentum
So other than its abundance, what’s the argument for hydrogen? Using hydrogen to generate power is not a new concept. In fact, the first use of hydrogen power has been around for centuries and current technology has been in research since 1970. Nowadays, there are two main hydrogen technologies in use. By far the most common are fuel cell vehicles, which convert hydrogen into electricity and which this article will primarily focus on.

However, it is also possible to adapt internal combustion engines to run on liquid hydrogen. BMW is one such carmaker that has over 40 years of experience with hydrogen as a fuel source, with its well-known internal combustion engine Hydrogen 7 project. This was the first-ever small series of hydrogen cars on the road, which was not produced commercially, but rather rented to “pioneers” across different sectors to promote the technology and renewable energy. Adapting internal combustion engines to work with hydrogen is theoretically simpler than building fuel cells, but the energy output is typically less efficient.

At the Frankfurt Motor Show 2019, BMW unveiled future plans for continuing to explore hydrogen power, with the i Hydrogen Next fuel cell concept vehicle, with a projected timeline of going into series production by 2025, depending on market requirements and overall conditions.

Pull the plug
Nowadays, commercial hydrogen-powered cars are fuel cell vehicles. Unlike the more common battery-powered electric vehicles, these don’t need to be plugged in and current models have roughly 500 kilometres of range on a full tank. Refuelling a hydrogen-powered vehicle is as simple as filling up a regular car with petrol – at least for the user. The dispenser is attached to the fuel receptacle, pumping gaseous hydrogen at a high-pressure into the tank. This works like an average petrol station pump, except with an impressive advanced technology that communicates with the fuel cell vehicle's onboard computer, in order to determine temperature, tank pressure and fuel levels, before ejecting the fuel. This all takes only slightly longer than refuelling with petrol or diesel, meaning that users can get back on the road in five minutes, eliminating the anxiety of running out of power and the waiting time during charging, which turns potential customers away from going fully electric.

Furthermore, a hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t burn anything, in contrast to a regular engine. Instead, it uses a chemical reaction between the hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electricity. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are quiet, like their electric battery counterparts, emitting only water vapour out of the exhaust. Hydrogen fuel cells are also exceptionally efficient. Whereas an internal combustion engine uses less than 20 per cent of the available chemical energy in petrol, a fuel cell utilises roughly 60 per cent of the energy in hydrogen, meaning that the same amount of energy will take you two to three times as far.

So, what’s the catch?
Hydrogen power has been available for years, but in a limited capacity, since pure hydrogen is very rare. Due to its lightness, it tends to escape out of the atmosphere. To be able to exploit hydrogen as an energy source, it needs to be extracted from existing molecules. Sustainable hydrogen can be extracted through electrolysis, by separating hydrogen from water molecules or it can be produced from biological sources like algae, among other methods. However, these are not yet cost-effective and still in the early stages of development, so although there are renewable sources of hydrogen production, most methods nowadays still rely on electricity, which is typically generated from fossil fuels.

Provided countries had the right setup in place for renewable hydrogen production, this could take place anywhere, as hydrogen is not a limited resource, such as oil. This means that countries wouldn’t have to rely on trade and transport of fuel, stabilising the economy, guaranteeing supply and having further positive environmental impact. In the long run, of course.

Supply and demand
Of course, hydrogen-powered vehicles also rely on designated hydrogen filling stations and the topic of supply and demand is still a tricky one. If there was widespread interest in hydrogen-powered vehicles and more users, the number of hydrogen filling stations would rise to fulfill the demand, but without the existing infrastructure already in place, buyers are hesitant.

The biggest hurdle, however, remains the cost-factor. The hefty price-tag on production and setting up of hydrogen fuelling stations rack up in the millions. Add this to the cost of fuel cell technology and hydrogen-powered vehicles are simply not competitive enough to earn a spot in the mainstream mobility mix of today. Sceptics believe that large-scale renewable hydrogen will never be viable at a low cost, but there is research underway that suggests that prices will become competitive within the next decade.

Without the necessary infrastructure in place, demand for hydrogen-powered vehicles remains low and this, in turn, leaves manufacturers hesitant to branch into that market, when there is already ripe competition for other environmentally friendly alternatives, namely the electric car. So, for the average traveller, hydrogen might not be the ideal solution, at least not in the near future. However, for long distance vehicles – such as trucks, buses and trains – the technology is far more promising. Shared mobility runs more efficiently and recoups costs faster than individual users. Besides, public transport networks benefit from designated charging locations, making it easier to set up an infrastructure that caters to the network as a whole.

Riding the H2 wave
Ridesharing company CleverShuttle, in cooperation with Alphabet Germany, operates a fleet of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles across Germany and has already racked up over one million kilometres travelled with their 45 fuel cell Toyota Mirai’s.

At the end of last year, Germany adopted the first hydrogen-powered trains in its northern region, in addition to several hydrogen buses, which have already been available in selected cities for nearly a decade. Following in these footsteps, London has ordered 20 hydrogen-powered double-decker buses, which will be coming to the streets next year and Japan and South Korea are among nations who have committed to hydrogen buses in the hundreds and thousands respectively. Meanwhile, California is racing towards cleaner energy and has set an ambitious goal of 200 hydrogen stations by 2025.

Interest in fuel cell electric vehicles fluctuate from year to year, but always remain among the key trends to look out for. Every year, the Global Automotive Executive Survey presents exciting industry trends based on the input of business leaders in the automotive sector, which are worth keeping track of.

So, is the future electric or not?
The answer to this question is more complex than a simple yes or no. Rather than one particular energy source, the goal is to work towards a clean future by reducing emissions and increasing the production and use of renewable fuel sources, in order to achieve truly zero-emission vehicles. If hydrogen were to enter the market as a commercially-viable solution in a large scale, this wouldn’t negate the value of electric cars. It would simply add to the mobility mix for a future that isn’t electric or hydrogen-powered or something else altogether, but rather, a future that is clean.