The race is on for car manufacturers to bring out their own range on electric vehicles (EV). But what if the new kid on the block ends up taking over? Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota are among the major firms now testing out hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in their production lines to see which proves the most successful. Car manufacturers are competing to produce the most efficient vehicles that do not rely on traditional fuels such as petroleum and diesel, as part of the international push to tackle climate change through decarbonization. Many see EVs as the answer, as the battery technology is tried and tested, and brands such as Tesla have put EVs in the public eye for years. But a lesser number of car manufacturers are now considering hydrogen FCEVs as the way forward.
FCEVs have been criticized for being less efficient as only around 55 percent of the hydrogen energy created through electrolysis is usable, compared to between 70 and 80 percent in battery-electric cars. However, there are several advantages to fuel cells, including low recharge times – just a matter of minutes, and long-range.
But several practical obstacles stand in the way of hydrogen FCEVs, such as the lack of charging infrastructure in contrast to the ever-expanding EV infrastructure. For example, at the beginning of 2021 there were only 12 hydrogen fuelling stations in the U.K., not surprising as only two brands of FCEV were on the market – the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo.
In addition, hydrogen is currently much more expensive than electric fuel, costing around £60 for a 300-mile tank. Moreover, much of the hydrogen on the market comes from the excess carbon produced from fossil fuels by using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
Yet, the disadvantages of battery EVs should not be overlooked. After years of investment, it is unlikely that we will see major advances in battery technology any time soon. Not to forget that lithium-ion batteries are heavy, making them near-impossible to use in freight and aviation. The metals used in existing battery production, such as cobalt and nickel, are also problematic due to ethical mining concerns as well a high costs adding to the overall price of EVs.
While neither is without fault right now, there is significant interest in perfecting the technology to convert water into hydrogen through electrolysis, thereby leaving the current reliance on fossil fuels for hydrogen production in the past. Once this is possible, there is talk of converting natural gas infrastructure for use in hydrogen transportation to reduce costs and speed up the switch.
Taking the bet, Hyundai recently announced that it intends to release hydrogen fuel cell versions of all its commercial vehicle models as early as 2028 as part of its Vision 2040. The major car manufacturer promises its “next-generation fuel-cell system” to be released in 2023. It also hopes to produce a hydrogen FCEV at a competitive price point, comparable to its EV counterpart. This could catapult the popularity of the FCEV, which is currently far more expensive than lower-end EVs.
Hyundai stated of the advancement in technology, there will be a third-generation fuel cell stack “with costs being lowered by more than 50%, total package volume reduced by 30% and power output doubled.”
But Hyundai is not the only car manufacturer toying with innovative new technologies in its long-term strategy for environmentally-friendly vehicles. Toyota Motor Corporation has developed a fuel cell system module and is planning to produce these cells at their Kentucky plant by 2023, for use in big rigs and heavy-duty commercial vehicles. General Motors is also planning to provide fuel starts of Navistar as part of an emission-free long-haul pilot program in 2022, aiming for 500 miles of range and an under 15 minutes fueling time.
In contrast to lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells are suitable for use in heavy vehicles and aviation, allowing car manufacturers to expand the use of fuel cells beyond standard commercial vehicles. The potential for use of hydrogen fuel cells in heavy trucks could help to improve public interest in the most viable alternative to EV batteries, with the possibility of constructing hydrogen fueling stations along major highways much in the same way as existing traditional fuelling stations.
Yet EV majors have repeatedly spoken out against the potential for a hydrogen fuel cell boom, with both Volkswagen’s chief executive Herbert Diess and Tesla’s Elon Musk criticizing the technology. This means that Hyundai and other firms taking the gamble on hydrogen technologies will have to compete for public favor against the EV industry’s heavyweights to prove hydrogen FCEVs’ worth.
As the battles between hydrogen and battery EVs wages on, the level of success of Hyundai and other automotive majors’ grand plans, as well as a potential breakthrough in water to hydrogen electrolysis, could make all the difference.