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If the Electric Car Revolution Sputters, Hydrogen Could Still Succeed

By November 24, 2022 8   min read  (1280 words)

November 24, 2022 |

Fuel Cells Works, If the Electric Car Revolution Sputters, Hydrogen Could Still Succeed

For electric car afficionados, victory is complete. The fat lady finished singing long ago and has moved on to another gig.

Fuel Cells Works, If the Electric Car Revolution Sputters, Hydrogen Could Still Succeed

A NamX hydrogen SUV on display during the “Mondial de l’Automobile” in Paris, France.

The dominance of battery electric vehicles over the now apparently universally despised fossil-fueled options seems complete, with politicians in Europe declaring no new petrol or diesel vehicle will be sold after 2035, and the U.S. closing in on a similar plan.

Sales projections for 2030 and 2035 include expectations for hydrogen fuel cells as a mere rounding item. The idea that hydrogen has a role to play in powering cars and SUVs is dismissed with contempt by environmental organizations, who see fuel-cells powering some trucks, trains and airplanes, but not private cars and SUVs.

According to Schmidt Automotive Research, battery-electric sales (BEV) in Western Europe will hit just under 1.5 million this year and just over 1.5 million in 2023 for a market share around 14.4% before accelerating to 20% by 2025 and 65% by 2030, which would mean sales of 9.2 million in a total market of 14.2 million. Fuel cell sales barely figure.

The victory seems complete, so why are the few remaining supporters of hydrogen – Toyota, Hyundai and BMW – wasting their time and shareholder’s money on such futile projects?

For all the bravado and virtue-signaling, electric cars have some serious drawbacks. Battery prices are now advancing not falling. Electric cars were going to become firm favorites as the price of batteries fell under $100 kWh, but the reverse is now happening thanks to coronavirus pandemic-induced supply chain problems and inflation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suppose the demand for electric cars does reach more than 60% of the market by 2030? It will be no surprise if the price of exotic components like cobalt, manganese copper and lithium go through the roof on the way, destroying the economic case. The supply of some minerals like cobalt has some disturbing aspects like the alleged use of child labor. Then there’s the perennial range-anxiety, the need for a hugely expensive charging infrastructure, and some experts claim electric cars don’t do much to save carbon dioxide (CO2) anyway. Electric cars are hopeless for sustained long-distance driving compared with diesels.

So it’s really no surprise some say the fuel-cell will one day be an important part of the personal transportation budget. Even all-in-for-electric Volkswagen has announced a hydrogen project. Wards Auto reported VW is developing a new hydrogen fuel cell for a vehicle that could achieve 1,240 miles of range. BMW CEO Oliver Zipse has said the next trend for cars and SUV power will be hydrogen, with sales beginning in the U.S. within 5 years. Zipse also reiterated the point made by Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares that the outlawing of ICE technology by politicians, rather than engineers developing the best systems, was dangerous.

Fuel Cells Works, If the Electric Car Revolution Sputters, Hydrogen Could Still Succeed

Fuel cell diagram. Vector. Device that converts chemical potential energy into electrical energy. A PEM, Proton Exchange Membrane cell uses hydrogen gas and oxygen gas as fuel.GETTY

The European Parliament approved a plan in October to support green hydrogen in the transport system, aimed mainly at trucks. The plan would mandate a maximum distance of about 60 miles between each hydrogen refuelling station on Europe’s main highways. This would be available for cars and SUVs too. Brussels-based lobby group Transport & Environment didn’t like this proposal when it was aired a few months ago, saying it risked making the energy grid dirtier in the short-term and was “dangerous” for cleaner energy policy.

Bernstein Research, in a report “Hydrogen Highway 2022: Rocky Road to Decarbonization”, said reaching net zero CO2 is impossible without hydrogen.

“While green hydrogen will be the long-term solution, we still expect blue hydrogen to play an important role until renewable capacity is sufficient for both green electricity and hydrogen. Fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) are also growing. China FCEV sales grew almost 200% in the first half of 2022. China targets 1 million FCEVs on the road by 2030,” the report said.

At the Paris Car Show in October, NamX unveiled its SUV powered by hydrogen, an HUV.

NamX, or New Automotive and Mobility eXploration, says it has solved the lack of infrastructure problem bugging fuel-cell startups. NamX has two hydrogen tanks. One is common to other FCEVs like the Toyota Mirai. The second tank uses removable hydrogen capsules, which don’t need to refilled at the regular station. Instead the capsules can be bought at stores. There are 6 capsules in NamX and together with the other tank can fuel the vehicle for 500 miles. It takes about 30 seconds to swap. NamX plans to start selling HUVs in 2025.

Alexandre Audoin, Head of Global Automotive at consultancy Capgemini, sees great potential in fuel cells, not only for large cars, but small ones too.

Audoin said Capgemini and its partners have developed a hydrogen-fuelled prototype for urban and suburban use which will co-exist with other technologies.

“There isn’t a unique answer that will solve the mobility challenges of today. So, it’s not a case of which technology is better, but how different technologies and solutions can co-exist to support the sustainable transformation for automakers and to be adapted to the variety of customer usage. There will be a variety of options for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles coming to the market across single-capsule, two-tank, multiple-tank systems, and others depending on the vehicle type and solution needs,” Audoin said.

“Fuel-cell hybrid electric vehicles (FCEVs) could be a viable alternative in the short-term, as long as the infrastructure is developed. One of the main advantages is the low duration to load the tank, comparable to fuel. The (hydrogen, green and not green) origin has to be also checked like for power supply. Finally it’s a solution, despite the H2 chain efficiency which is lower than other solutions, that may give us an extended range with fast refill. There is also a battery, but it’s small, so less rare materials are used – fuel cells nowadays use an optimized quantity of platinum for example, allowing a recovering rate of more than 99% – the rest of the components can also be recycled at low CO2 cost compared to batteries,” Audoin in an email exchange.

Fuel Cells Works, If the Electric Car Revolution Sputters, Hydrogen Could Still Succeed

Removable hydrogen capsules on the NamX stand during the “Mondial De L’Automobile” at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles in Paris, France. (Photo by Richard Bord)

The conventional wisdom would have us believe it’s game-over for everything but the battery-electric vehicle, although there is some concession about the use of fuel-cells for long-distance cars and SUVs. But if the NamX experiment succeeds it suggests that fuel-cells will also be viable for small, short-range vehicles too. That spells a huge challenge for battery-electric cars, and good news for consumers as manufacturers are forced to fight for new customers.

As KPMG Global Automotive Sector Leader Gary Silberg put it to me earlier this year, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) might have the inside track for now, but it’s too early to be sure.

“A BEV future is clearly the current conventional wisdom, but I believe that the coming years will be far more complicated and unpredictable than (this) suggests,” Silberg said.

“With infrastructure challenges, I believe the future of the industry will be fragmented and there will not be a single, monolithic model for success – the industry will look more like a mosaic. For the next 10 to 20 years, multiple fuel/powertrain combinations – including gasoline/ICE will coexist, and innovation from the private sector will be driven by consumer demand,” Silberg said.

A winning hand for hydrogen insists on its creation by renewable CO2 free energy, so green is the only viable option. That’s bad news for blue, grey, brown, pink/purple, turquoise and yellow hydrogen varieties.

SOURCE: Forbes

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