Hydrogen is not just a fuel, but more a universal carrier and a way to store energy.
This article is part of GP-ORF series — From Alpha Century to Viral World: The Raisina Young Fellows Speak.
What kind of electric car propulsion will become the most efficient and the cheapest — a battery or a fuel cell using hydrogen? Are battery electric cars only an interim generation? What kind of future will it be? Certainly, one with limited fossil fuels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that if we do not take decisive steps, global temperatures will rise by 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052<1>, leading to more frequent natural disasters. One possible solution to slow down climate change impacts is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels through, for instance, the internal combustion engines of millions of vehicles all over the world. The need to reduce fossil fuel dependence and reduce CO2 emissions has spurred the search for new energy sources and the development of electromobility (the use of electric vehicles, or EVs).
The electric car is not a new phenomenon. The first EVs came long before the internal combustion engine. At the turn of the twentieth century, the market for electric cars was almost as large as for steam-powered vehicles. They were quiet, easy to operate and performed well; in fact, the first car to exceed 100 km/h was electric<2>. However, electric cars soon fell out of favour due to developments in the internal combustion — engines were becoming more reliable and powerful at lower production costs.
The modern car industry is on the cusp of a change — the looming end of the ‘combustion era’ and the coming of the ‘era of electromobility.’ In 2019, electric car sales reached 2.1 million globally, surpassing the previous record year (2018) and taking the global EV numbers to 7.2 million<3>.
Electromobility is currently ruled by battery-operated EVs, powered by electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries to transfer to an electric motor. Unlike traditional cars, there is no combustion process, no oxidation of hydrocarbons and no exhaust fumes with numerous chemical compounds, all harmful to health. Apart from the minimisation of emissions, a battery-operated electric car is in many ways more comfortable than one with an internal combustion engine. Once started, electric cars can reach full engine capacity immediately, which is nearly impossible for vehicles equipped with a combustion engine. The simple design also makes electric cars less prone to failure as there is no need to change filters and oil. Moreover, EVs are easier to control and are far less noisy than regular cars.
Yet, internal combustion engines are still more popular than battery-operated EVs. The biggest cause for this is the price; exorbitant production costs are to blame for the high prices of batteries. The price will fall with improvements in the production process and the development of recycling technologies for old batteries. But batteries still have many limitations — an important hurdle to overcome is accumulating more energy in batteries, enabling them to travel longer. Additionally, at low temperatures, energy consumption increases, further reducing the travel range. For now, battery-operated EVs are not long-distance cars.
The lithium-ion battery in only one electromobility solution. Another option, that is increasingly being discussed, is hydrogen<4>. EVs can also be powered by electricity generated from the simplest yet most abundant natural element. As with battery-operated EVs, no harmful substances are emitted during reaction in the electrochemical equipment (fuel cells) of a hydrogen-powered car. The devices produce electric energy due to the chemical reaction between hydrogen with oxygen. Hydrogen could be the answer to all the issues raised by battery-operated EVs, including range limitations, charging requirements or the environmental impact of lithium-ion battery production. Hydrogen operated EVs will also be more cost-effective. The time required to charge EV batteries reduces their availability for use. It can take about five minutes to refuel a hydrogen-powered battery and it has a larger range, which translates into higher operating profits. Hydrogen filling stations take up less space than battery car charging stations, serving the same or a greater number of vehicles.
Hydrogen-powered cars are expected to make up a large proportion of the vehicles on our roads in the future; by 2030, hydrogen could be the fuel that runs 10 million cars<5>. But for now, the number of fuel cell-run EVs is limited. Although hydrogen is an easily available fuel, there are still very few hydrogen stations. Hydrogen fuel cells technology need to be developed at a quicker pace than that of lithium-ion batteries. It may be practical to use hydrogen for trucks and buses now, and for long distances in a few years. At the moment, batteries outperform fuel cells in terms of cost and infrastructure development for large-scale implementation. The costs of fuel cells, hydrogen tanks and hydrogen fuel have meant hydrogen-run EVs are costly, making battery-operated cars the preferred sustainable transportation option for now.
Nevertheless, hydrogen will significantly impact progress in transport electrification and as an electromobility fuel. Hydrogen is not just a fuel, but more a universal carrier and a way to store energy. It can retain energy surpluses generated during the night when electricity demand is low or from renewable sources. It is not a substitute for fossil fuels, but is the perfect inclusion in conventional emission sources being replaced by emission-free renewables. Its use will also solve the problem of long-distance energy transmission. Hydrogen will also have many economic benefits beyond the transportation section. It is also anticipated as a simple and cost-effective way to store solar or wind energy.
Electromobility is the future of transportation. Over time, the cost of producing lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells will need to be reduced such that EVs are affordable for all and can quickly replace traditional internal combustion engines. Hydrogen fuel cells are unlikely to the single successor to internal combustion engines, but will power the turn to EVs alongside lithium-ion batteries. They can enable the electrification of those segments of the transport sector where the use of batteries would be too expensive or even impossible, such as trains or heavy trucks. However, with hydrogen already being used in an increasing number of areas such as the chemical industry, it should not just be seen as a fuel for the cars for the future, but as a universal, future-oriented energy carrier that, when used properly, will help maintain carbon neutrality.
<1> V. Delmotte et al., “Summary for Policymakers,” in Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, IPCC, 2018.
<4> European Commision, Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cells: A vision of our future, European Commission.
<5> Hydrogen Council, Path to hydrogen competitiveness: A cost perspective, Hydrogen Council.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Krzysztof Michalski graduated from the Faculty of Law and Administration and the Faculty of Political Science of the Marie Curie Skodowska University in Lublin. He ...Read More +