Hydrogen electric vehicles
It is increasingly realised its impossible to eliminate CO2 emissions from fossil-fuelled engines. Some vehicle makers used fraudulent methods to disguise this. Globally, governments progressively ban fossil-fuelled vehicles. Part fossil-fuel hybrids will be phased out as technology provides adequate range. Meanwhile, oil costs increasingly rises. Oil also diminishes in availability. It is all but certain we shall see hydrogen electric vehicles within the next ten years. Furthermore, it is increasingly probable our global economy will be hydrogen based. Doing so will need major changes. There may, however, be little choice.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – not a new concept
In 1806, the first known internal combustion engine, (invented by Francois Isaac de Rivaz). It ran on hydrogen and oxygen. In 1863, Étienne Lenoir developed a single cylinder car. This too was hydrogen and oxygen powered. His vehicle succeeded. Records show 350-400 sales.
Interest in hydrogen power then waned. It was revived in 1933. Norway’s Norsk Hydro power converted a truck to run on hydrogen from reformed ammonia. It used the existing internal combustion engine. While not hydrogen, petrol vehicles ran on coal gas during WW2.
Norwegian wholesaler Asko’s goods vehicles run on hydrogen. It used solar module energy to split water. This produces emissions-free hydrogen and oxygen. SINTEF (a major European research organisations) states Norway could have 10,000 heavy hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2030.
Hydrogen is used on an industrial scale globally. Most however is produced from fossil fuels. Its production causes substantial CO2 emissions. It is essential that governments and industry to develop common international standards. These are required for producing and transporting hydrogen. Also for tracing environmental impacts.
Hydrogen can be produced in many ways
Currently, heat and chemical reactions release hydrogen from organic materials. These include fossil fuels and biomass. An environmentally sound alternative is passing electric current through water. This splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This technology is called ‘electrolysis’. It is well already well developed. Furthermore it’s now feasible using seawater. Moreover it can use solar or wind generated energy.
Another way (‘photolytic’) uses energy from daylight. This too splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. It is at research stage. If feasible it will produce hydrogen with low environmental impact.
Bacteria and microalgae too can produce hydrogen through biological reactions. They use sunlight or organic matter. These technologies are at an early research stage. They have the potential for sustainable, low-carbon hydrogen production.
Hydrogen is not always ‘clean’
Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier. It’s cost, however, depends on how ‘clean’ it is.
Green Hydrogen has zero carbon emissions. It is produced via zero-emissions sources such as wind and solar powered electrolysis. It is preferred because splitting water releases no carbon. One 1 kilogram of green hydrogen’s energy is about 33.3 kWh. In 2020 it costs 3.50 to 5 Euros.
Blue Hydrogen is produced without carbon emissions. Or has such emissions captured and stored. Or reused.Synthetic Blue uses carbon capture and storage and carbon credits etc to achieve net-zero emissions.
Grey, Brown or Black hydrogen is typically produced from natural gas or brown coal. Due to substantial carbon emissions, they are legally penalised.
Global hydrogen energy plans
The USA was the first country to establish hydrogen (and fuel-cell) technology. It was part of its 1970s energy strategy. In 1990, it passed the ‘Hydrogen Research, Development And Demonstration Act’. This formulated a five-year plan for hydrogen energy research and development. In 2002, its Department of Energy issued the national Hydrogen Energy Development Roadmap. Its guidelines coordinated hydrogen energy development.
In 2012, the US Congress rewrote the hydrogen fuel-cell policy. It increased tax credits for hydrogen refueling properties. It created tax credits for efficient fue- cells. In 2014, the government promulgated an Energy Strategy. This clarified a leading role of hydrogen in transportation. The National Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association was formed in 2015.
The USA’s hydrogen and fuel-cell research and development was led by the Department of Energy. It was also supplemented by universities and research institutes etc. All were allocated funds.
In 2019, the USA’s Department of Energy announced intentions to spend up to US$31 million. This was for low cost hydrogen production, transport, storage and utilisation. It later launched a partnership with fuel-cell makers. All focussed on advancing hydrogen’s infrastructure.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – fuel-cells
A fuel-cell converts the chemical energy of a fuel directly into electricity. It uses electrochemical reactions. A fuel-cell part generator and part battery. The cell is continuously supplied with fuel and air (or oxygen). The output is clean DC. The only emission is ultra-clean water.
Fuel-cells have been used for decades in space applications. Many are installed in hospitals, schools, hotels, office buildings and countless RVs. They can supply both main and backup power. Some are powered from methane produced by decomposing garbage. Smaller fuel cells are powered by ethanol or high quality methanol.
The first fuel-cell powered vehicles (in 2002) were from Daimler-Benz, Ford, General Motors and Nissan. http://fsec.ucf.edu/en/publications/pdf/fsec-cr-1987-14.pdf.
The USA’s take-up of fuel-cell powered cars is slow but steadily growing. In 2020 approximately 10,000 are in coastal California. The California Fuel Cell Partnership has outlined targets for 1000 hydrogen refueling stations. Also, of about one million fuel-cell electric vehicles by 2030.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – European Union support
The European Union (EU) is pushing a vehicle hydrogen program. It is for aviation and heavy industry. The EU’s CO2 legislation for passenger vehicles includes SUVs. If fossil-fuelled, it requires average fuel consumption of 150 km (92 miles) per U.S. gallon (about 3.8 litres) by 2030. This is a serious engineering challenge. Vehicle makers thus welcome an alternative CO2-free fuel. As is hydrogen.
Hydrogen production in Europe will not be a problem. It can use excess capacity from renewable wind-farm energy. There is ample such capacity in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Scotland. There is hydro-electric power in Switzerland. In Germany, the chemical industry produces hydrogen which is currently burned off as waste.
The EU regulations virtually require all new cars in 2030 be battery or fuel-cell powered. Mass-produced such cars are needed by then. The global Hydrogen Council estimates that by 2050, hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars and SUVs. Furthermore, up to 20 million trucks and five million buses. Moreover, it forecasts that hydrogen will, by then, provide 18% of the world’s energy.
David Wenger of Wenger Engineering Gmbh organises seminars on ‘fuel-cells being inevitable’. He emphasises that investors are embracing hydrogen. Also, that companies like Toyota and Hyundai lead the way. ‘People are starting to wake up to the benefits of hydrogen as industry tries to fulfil obligations from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Investors are moving in to help improve the product and lower costs,’ said Wenger in a telephone interview.
Should car buyers go for fuel-cells rather than battery electric?
A few authorities argue that producing hydrogen by traditional methods uses up just as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as saved by the fuel-cell process. In effect that the renewable capacity from wind, solar and off-peak hydro-electric to provide enough material at a competitive price doesn’t exist. And even if was, distribution and storage costs would be prohibitive.
Far from all, however, agree with that view. A 2020 California Energy Commission, report outlines a plan for developing renewable hydrogen production. It predicts that future hydrogen demand and costs makes this worthwhile. The key findings are: ‘the dispensed price of hydrogen is likely to meet an interim target based on fuel economy-adjusted price parity with gasoline of $6.00 to $8.50 per kilogram by 2025.’
Fuel-cell car and other electric vehicle buying cost
Apart from a far from adequate fuelling network, fuel-cell cars are relatively expensive to buy. The few already available on the market cost around US $60,000 for a mid- or upper-mid-range vehicle. That’s almost twice as much as comparable electric or hybrid vehicles. In California, however, fuel-cell powered vehicles attract up to $10,000 tax savings, and a $15,000 fuel card.
In addition to small volumes (large-scale fuel-cell vehicle production is yet to be industrialised) there’s also a need for the precious metal, platinum, which acts as a catalyst during power generation. The amount of platinum needed for vehicle fuel-cells has already been greatly reduced. ‘The general goal is to bring down the price of hydrogen-powered cars to a similar level to that of other electric cars,’ explains Rücker.
Another reason for the high purchase price is that hydrogen fuel-cell cars tend to be large. This is because the hydrogen tank(s) take up a lot of space. The drive unit for a purely battery-driven electric vehicle, on the other hand, also fits into small cars. That’s why electric cars can currently be found in all vehicle classes.
Fuel-cell car and other electric vehicle running cost
A fuel-cell powered electric vehicle typically travels about 28 miles (45 km) on 1 lb (0.45 kg) of hydrogen.
At present, 1 lb (0.45 kg) of hydrogen costs around 14 $US in the U.S. In Germany however, Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell, and Total have formed a joint venture (H2 Mobility partners) to provide nationwide hydrogen refueling stations. The H2 Mobility’s agreed price for 0.45 kg is the equivalent of 4.8 $US.
The cost per mile of running hydrogen cars in the USA is therefore currently almost twice as high as that of battery-powered vehicles charged at home. BMW’s expert Axel Rücker expects these operating costs to converge: ‘If the demand for hydrogen increases, the price could drop to around USD 2.50/lb (USD 5.60/kg) by 2030 forecasts Axel Rücker.
The cost of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles has to include that of transporting and storing hydrogen. The gas can be in compressed liquid, or gaseous form. The trend is towards liquid hydrogen. Either way, however, transporting and storing hydrogen is more complex and energy-intensive than for petrol and diesel.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – driving a fuel-cell powered vehicle
A fuel-cell car’s propulsion is purely electrical. Driving one is similar to driving an electric car. There is virtually no engine noise. Furthermore, all accelerate well. This is because electric motors provide full torque at low speeds.
Another fuel-cell car’s advantage is quick charging time. Depending on the charging station and battery capacity, fully electric vehicles currently require between 30 minutes and several hours for a full charge. The hydrogen tanks of fuel cell cars, on the other hand, are full and ready to go again in less than five minutes. For users, this brings vehicle availability and flexibility into line with those of a conventional car.
For the time being, hydrogen cars still have a longer range than purely electric cars. A full hydrogen tank will last around 300 miles (approx. 480 kilometres). Battery-powered cars can match this with very large batteries – but that increases vehicle weight and charging times. Furthermore, compared to typical plug-in electric cars that travel about 160 km (about 100 miles) on a single charge, fuel-cell vehicles travel 480 to 640 km (300 to 400 miles) per fill-up.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – summary
Hydrogen fuel cell technology can make ecologically sustainable mobility possible. This necessitates using renewable energy sources for hydrogen production. It also needs doing so in more places to shorten transporting.
In a recent (mid-2020 report) Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in alluding to the possibilities of a hydrogen economy, noted that it would take a global government subsidy of US$150 billion over 10 years to do so.
One can assume the 2020 coronavirus crisis will put that on hold for a year or two.
Electric Vehicle Series
This is a part of a series of articles about the history and technology involved in electric vehicles.