Updated November 2020
Hydrogen electric vehicles
It is increasingly realised (and accepted) it is impossible to eliminate CO2 emissions from fossil-fuelled engines. Some vehicle makers even used fraud to disguise this. Globally, governments progressively ban fossil-fuelled vehicles. Part fossil-fuel hybrids too will be phased out. Meanwhile, oil costs increasingly rise as supplies diminish. We are already seeing production of hydrogen-electric vehicles. Furthermore, it is increasingly probable our global economy will be hydrogen-based. Doing so needs major changes. We may, however, have little choice.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – not a new concept
The first known internal combustion engine was invented In 1806, by Francois Isaac de Rivaz. It ran on hydrogen and oxygen. In 1863, Étienne Lenoir developed a single cylinder hydrogen and oxygen powered car. Records show that 350-400 sold.
Interest in hydrogen power then waned until 1933 when Norsk Hydro power converted a truck to run on hydrogen from reformed ammonia. It used the existing internal combustion engine. While coal gas is not 100% hydrogen, vehicles ran on it during WW2.
Norway’s Asko goods vehicles run on hydrogen generated by using solar energy to split water. This produces emissions-free hydrogen and oxygen. SINTEF (a major European research organisation) states Norway could have 10,000 heavy hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2030.
Hydrogen can be produced in many ways
Industry uses hydrogen on an industrial scale. Most however, is produced from fossil fuels. This causes substantial CO2 emissions. There are, however, no common international standards re producing and transporting hydrogen. Nor for tracing its environmental impacts.
Currently, heat and chemical reactions release hydrogen from organic materials. These include fossil fuels and biomass. An environmentally better alternative is via passing electric current through water. This splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This technology is called ‘electrolysis’. It is already well developed and now feasible using seawater via 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. Wind and solar powered electrolysis is preferred because splitting water releases no carbon. One 1 kilogram of green hydrogen’s energy can produce 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. Generating electricity with hydrogen-from-coal will result in roughly the same greenhouse gas emissions as burning coal in a power station.
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, the USA 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 fuel-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 is part generator and part battery. It converts a fuel’s chemical energy into electricity. 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 long been used 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 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 used in coastal California. The California Fuel Cell Partnership has outlined targets for 1000 hydrogen refueling stations. Also, for 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 for aviation and heavy industry. The EU’s CO2 legislation for passenger vehicles includes SUVs. If fossil-fuelled, the EU 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. Hydrogen is by far the favourite.
Producing hydrogen in Europe is not a problem. It can utilise excess capacity from wind-farm. There is ample such capacity in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Scotland. There is ample hydro-electric power in Switzerland. In Germany, hydrogen is currently burned as waste.
The EU regulations virtually require new cars in 2030 to be battery or fuel-cell powered. The (global) Hydrogen Council estimates that by 2050, hydrogen will power over 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.
Should car buyers go for fuel-cells rather than battery electric?
It is still being argued that producing hydrogen traditionally uses as much carbon dioxide as saved by via the fuel-cell process. Also that the renewable capacity from wind, solar and hydro-electric to provide enough hydrogen competitively doesn’t exist. And even if was, distribution and storage costs would be prohibitive. Far from all agree with that.
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 lacking an adequate fuelling network, fuel-cell cars are expensive. The few currently for sale cost around US $60,000. 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.
One reason why hydrogen fuel-cell cars are costly is their large size: their hydrogen tank(s) take up a lot of space. The motor for a 100% battery-driven electric vehicle, however, fits into small cars. That’s why electric cars are made 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. Currently, 1 lb (0.45 kg) of hydrogen costs around 14 $US in the U.S. In Germany, a joint venture (H2 Mobility Partners) will 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 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 compressed liquid. Either way, 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 are refilled in less than five minutes: much as with refuelling a conventional car.
For the time being, hydrogen cars have a longer range than purely electric cars. A full hydrogen tank will last around 300 miles (approx. 480 kilometres). Typical plug-in electric cars travel about 160 km (about 100 miles) on a single charge. This range can be extended by having more battery capacity – but that increases vehicle weight and charging times. Fuel-cell vehicles, however travel 480 to 640 km (300 to 400 miles) per fill-up.
Hydrogen electric vehicles – summary
Hydrogen fuel cell technology can make ecologically sustainable travelling 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.
Electric Vehicle Series
This is a part of a series of articles about the history and technology involved in electric vehicles.