The hype around hydrogen fuel cells gradually faded as BEVs began to take hold in the evolving green-transportation market. Might technological improvements bring them back into competition?
In the 2000s, under pressure to build greener cars, several automakers pursued hydrogen-based fuel-cell technology as an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly solution for powering vehicles whose only exhaust emission would be water vapor. Investors poured massive amounts of resources into hydrogen fuel-cell development, and a handful of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) hit the market over the past decade.
The hype around hydrogen fuel cells gradually faded, however, as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) began to take hold in the evolving green-transportation market. Tesla’s 2008 launch of its first luxury electric car, the Roadster, opened the door to consumer BEV development and adoption. It rapidly became obvious that for the near future, battery power would deliver more efficient solutions than fuel cells to meet the demand for green cars.
Looking in the rearview mirror, what happened to all the programs to develop hydrogen FCVs? And going forward, might technological improvements bring them back into competition with BEVs?
Bumps in the hydrogen road
In the late 1990s, when lithium-ion battery technology was not yet sufficiently developed for use in commercial vehicles, many people were betting on hydrogen technology, which seemed more feasible and forward-thinking. Toyota was among the first to take an interest in hydrogen fuel-cell technology, and in 2014, the automaker launched Mirai, a fuel-cell sedan. By the end of 2021, however, only about 800 units had been sold in Europe. Hyundai’s Nexo, a fuel-cell SUV that debuted around the same time, also failed to find buyers.
But those early commercial disappointments didn’t stop other companies, among them BMW and Audi, from pursuing the technology and betting on fuel-cell vehicles. BMW believed that hydrogen cars would gain more interest through the development of necessary infrastructure for hydrogen in the future. The German carmaker cited hydrogen cars’ numerous benefits, including quick charging time, longer range, ability to deliver full performance even under –20˚C, and virtually no engine noise. BMW recently reaffirmed its commitment to hydrogen FCVs and said small volumes of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen would be produced before the end of 2022.
On the other hand, some European carmakers, including Volkswagen and Mercedes, share Tesla’s belief that hydrogen cars have no future. For starters, hydrogen-fueled cars are far more expensive to purchase than BEVs. And the companies note that the process of running a fuel-cell car — from generating the pure hydrogen to fueling the electric powertrain to drive the vehicle — does not contribute to climate protection, as most of the hydrogen is still generated using fossil fuels.
Are batteries the better choice?
BEVs today are substantially more energy-efficient than FCVs, based on such factors as how the fuel is produced and how electricity is generated in the car. The well-to-wheel analysis, which is a way to measure the overall efficiency of a vehicle, shows that there are more steps involved in running a hydrogen car than in operating a BEV. For hydrogen, you need to carry out electrolysis, compress the gas and transport it, and then convert the hydrogen back to electricity. A considerable amount of energy loss takes place at each step, resulting in an overall efficiency of just about 40%. Additionally, as mentioned on the European Commission’s energy website, 96% of hydrogen in Europe is still produced using fossil fuels.
BEVs, on the other hand, have a well-to-wheel efficiency of about 76%, and EV charging stations are now adopting renewable sources, making BEVs more eco-friendly.
All of these factors have led to a boom in the EV market in Europe, and most automakers are shifting the production of battery-powered vehicles. European governments are aiming to lead the world in consumer EV adoption through massive subsidies, tax breaks, and free charging options for consumers. As a result of these incentives, sales of EVs surpassed diesel car sales in December 2021, according to the United National Environment Program (UNEP), and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) reported in July that in the 2021–2022 time period, one in every five new cars sold had a plug.
Next-gen hydrogen systems
Setting aside hydrogen’s drawbacks, the fact that it is a sustainable fuel choice cannot be ignored. By adopting more renewable sources in the hydrogen fuel-cell supply chain, FCVs can potentially compete with BEVs, as hydrogen fuel cells have two main advantages over batteries: weight and charging time. Hydrogen is stored in gaseous form, making the fuel cells lightweight, and an empty tank can be filled up in just five minutes, whereas current EV chargers power the battery from 0% to 80% in 10 to as many as 30 minutes, depending on the charger type.
Nonetheless, with current technology, hydrogen fuel systems for vehicles are still very inefficient.
Europe’s rising role
Several European startups are currently working on improving fuel-cell technology to make hydrogen production for FCVs much more environmentally friendly. AFC Energy (based in the U.K.), Topsoe (Denmark), Hopium (France), and SFC Energy (Germany) are the main players in the European fuel-cell technology market.
Over the next decade, watch for innovations from these and other companies working on alternatives to batteries to fuel the next generation of electric-motor–powered vehicles.