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All you need to know about hydrogen – Part 1

The conventional wisdom today is that electric vehicles with batteries (BEVs) are the future of transport. But this may ignore the potential of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), fuelled with hydrogen. One difference is it takes only minutes to fuel an FCEV, compared to hours for a BEV. Find out all you need to know about hydrogen electric vehicles.

What is an FCEV?

An FCEV is simply an electric vehicle with a fuel cell. It has an electric motor, like a regular EV, but you don’t directly charge it with electricity. The fuel cell in an FCEV combines hydrogen from the tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity. The only emission from the exhaust pipe is water vapour.

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the lightest element and the most abundant in the universe. Most of it is found in water but it is also in natural gas, coal and petroleum. Hydrogen is a good source of energy. Each kilogram of hydrogen contains about 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas.

To be usable, hydrogen must be separated from its source. Each method of separating hydrogen is coded with a different colour according to its perceived sustainability:

Green hydrogen – Electrolysers (powered with wind, solar or waste biomass) use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Blue hydrogen –  Steam reforming uses steam to heat methane in natural gas to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen, emissions captured.
Grey hydrogen – Currently 95% of hydrogen separation, steam reforming but emissions not captured.
Brown or black hydrogen – Gasification of brown or black coal into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, emissions not captured.

The sustainability of FCEVs or BEVs depends in part on how the hydrogen or electricity powering them is produced.

What are the main advantages of an FCEV?

The main advantage of an FCEV is you can quickly refuel with hydrogen at a service station. It takes only a few minutes. This is what we are used to doing with an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. A fully refuelled FCEV can travel a similar distance to an ICE vehicle, so there is no range anxiety.

Second, there are no emissions except water vapour from the tailpipe.

Third, compressed hydrogen gas is very dense in energy. An FCEV can travel 650kms using only 6kg of hydrogen. An EV with a 64kW battery travels 450km from a fully charged 450kg battery. For comparison, petrol has about 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery.

What are the main disadvantages of an FCEV?

The main disadvantage of an FCEV is you cannot buy an FCEV in Australia. Even if you could, they would currently be too expensive for the average buyer and there is almost no hydrogen network. In fact, many technologies begin with these disadvantages.

One way to see the advantages and disadvantages of FCEVs is to compare them with ICE vehicles and BEVs.

Comparison of FCEVs with EVs and ICE vehicles

Charging/fuelling infrastructure Huge, existing network Coming to cities, limited elsewhere Sparse, no network in Australia
Charge/fuel time 5 minutes Slow – hours not minutes* 5 minutes
Range Up to 850 kms Up to 350 kms Up to 666 kms
Choice Abundant Some sedans and SUVs Only 2 models
Affordability Good, all price levels Improving, still expensive in Australia Very expensive, not for sale in Australia
Cost to produce Economical Reducing, not yet economical Very expensive
Technology Proven Proven Being tested
Safety Proven Fire safety a concern Concern about pressurised tanks
Recycling Most parts can be recycled Batteries not easily recycled Power stacks refurbishable, 95% recyclable

Depends on how energy is produced

Use fossil fuels

High emissions

Batteries use rare earth metals

High emissions in production

No driving emissions

Depends on how energy is produced

No large battery

No driving emissions

* For example, Hyundai Kona EV takes 47 minutes to refuel to 80% full.

How do you make a choice?

Many carmakers,  especially Toyota, don’t support an either/or choice and want to see a mix of every type of vehicle on Australian roads. They argue some vehicles just do a better job than others for a particular task.

For example, someone taking short trips in the city can recharge a BEV frequently and doesn’t need to travel large distances. Meanwhile, the freight industry prefers FCEVs to travel long distances and needs only highway-based refuelling stations. BEV trucks would have too many heavy batteries for the same power.

There are examples of technologies that are better than the rest but still don’t become popular, for whatever reason. One is the Betamax tape recorder, which was technically superior, but not available in as many video rental shops as VHS tapes.

Even if FCEVs are a better technology, they may be unable to match the momentum of BEVs. BEVs are based on an existing system of supplying and distributing electricity. Meanwhile, FCEVs need a new system of supplying and distributing hydrogen, which depends on having someone – governments or corporates – willing to invest in it. For example, the pipeline infrastructure for a hydrogen distribution system in Europe could cost, in Australian dollars, 125–222 billion.

Who is investing in vehicles powered by hydrogen?

Automakers investing in FCEVs

BMW in Germany, Toyota in Japan, and Hyundai/Kia in Korea are making FCEVs, thanks in part to subsidies from their governments.

Meanwhile, General Motors in the US, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen in Germany have stopped developing hydrogen passenger cars. This doesn’t mean they are against hydrogen technology per se. They don’t see a place for hydrogen passenger cars but may support hydrogen technology in trucks, ships or trains.

Here are some current examples of what car brands are doing:

  • Hyundai promised last year to popularise FCEV technology by 2040 by using it in all vehicles, from sports cars to heavy trucks. It was the first manufacturer to commercialise FCEV heavy duty trucks. British INEOS is working on a Grenadier FCEV with Hyundai.
  • Chinese Great Wall Motor is investing more than US$149 million in developing FCEVs. It is reportedly introducing a range of hydrogen FCEVs under a new, luxury brand.
  • Toyota is testing a few Mirais in Australia and will release its second generation Mirai in Australia.
  • German BMW revealed its luxury SUV iX5 is being tested and will be ready for production by the end of this decade.
  • Indian Land Rover is developing a Defender FCEV.

The European Parliament wants to set minimum mandatory targets for EU countries to use alternative fuels. It wants at least one electric charging pool for cars every 60 kms by 2026 and hydrogen refuelling stations every 100 kms along main EU roads by 2028.

Meanwhile, what is the future of hydrogen in Australia? Find out next week.

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Corrina Baird

Writer and Researcher, greenslips.com.au

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years in financial services and over 8 years with greenslips.com.au, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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