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Hydrogen powered vehicles have enormous environmental advantages.
Hydrogen powered vehicles have enormous environmental advantages.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

Alternative fuel Hydrogen cars: the answer to reducing carbon emissions?

| Author / Editor: Jamie Thomson / Isabell Page

Hydrogen cars offer certain advantages over electric vehicles. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, they generate their own energy and are quick to refuel. But how ready are our cities for fuel cell technology?

With growing pressure to reduce global carbon emissions, the transport sector is in the spotlight. As the fastest-growing contributor to CO2, governments and organisations are looking to alternative fuel sources for all types of transport. While electric vehicles are typically seen as the answer to phasing out fossil fuel vehicles, hydrogen cars are increasingly being presented as a viable way to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, there are already several hydrogen-fuelled cars on public roads in Europe today.

In 2008, the European Commission partnered with Hydrogen Europe to establish the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU). The consortium aims to demonstrate how hydrogen can offer a low carbon solution to transport technologies. To date, it has funded over 250 projects across Europe, including refuelling infrastructures and hydrogen production plants.

As hydrogen starts to take hold in the transport sector, let’s take a closer look at its benefits and the challenges that the transport sector face in adopting it en mass.

The benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology

Whereas an electric battery stores its own energy, a fuel cell generates its own. Hydrogen reacts with the oxygen in the air, which creates an electrical charge that can be used to power a vehicle. The only waste products from hydrogen are heat and water, so it’s a zero-emission technology, well-suited to green travel. It’s also a sustainable fuel in comparison to fossil fuels and its production in solar or wind-powered hydrogen plants means it has a low carbon footprint.

Fuel cell technology is less expensive to produce than batteries and internal combustion engines. Fuel cells don’t need changed, charged, or managed like batteries, which saves time in the manufacturing process. Because they eliminate the need for a battery charging infrastructure, fuel cells also reduce the power demands on manufacturers, reducing their overall production costs.

Establishing an infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles

Hydrogen cars typically offer a similar range to electric vehicles at around 200 miles. However, they only take 3-4 minutes to refuel, whereas EVs can take up to 12 hours.

One of the biggest challenges facing hydrogen cars, as with EVs, is a lack of charging infrastructure. There are already several hydrogen cars on the road, such as the Hyundai Nexo, however, in order to accommodate the fuel on a larger scale, more charging points need to be made available across Europe. According to the twelfth annual assessment by H2stations.org, at the end of 2019, there were 432 hydrogen refuelling stations in operation worldwide, with 177 in Europe - 87 of which are in Germany. By comparison, as of 2018, there were 135,000 petrol fuelling stations across Europe. In addition to the current lack of infrastructure, hydrogen cars are expensive. The Hyundai Nexo costs around €70,000 and the Toyota Mirai costs around €73,000. By comparison, the average petrol car in Europe costs €29,352. However, in the long-term, as demand for hydrogen cars grows, prices are likely to become more competitive.

Storing hydrogen is also a challenge. It has a low volume, needs to be stored at low temperatures and high pressure. Because light-duty vehicles have a limited capacity for fuel storage, storing enough hydrogen for a 200-mile journey requires a larger tank than you’d typically find in a petrol car. To overcome this barrier, the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office is currently researching the viability of compressed gas storage and cryo-compressed hydrogen storage in order to meet the Department of Energy’s storage targets.

Summary

  • Despite the environmental benefits that hydrogen offers, a lack of charging infrastructure remains the biggest barrier to mass adoption.
  • Until infrastructures are put in place, car manufacturers are unlikely to invest heavily in the production of hydrogen cars.
  • In turn, this means that car prices will remain high for consumers, limiting their adoption. Although it may be early days for hydrogen cars, until a balance is struck between availability and affordability, their usage will remain low.
  • In the near-future, it’s more likely that we’ll see an increased uptake of hydrogen-electric hybrid vehicles where infrastructures for both fuels combined are more readily available.