Are H2 fuel cell vehicles still relevant with the rising popularity of electric battery vehicles?
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have taken a back seat in media coverage as battery electric vehicles have become more prominent. This is due to the considerable rise of Tesla and then a flurry of activity in the battery electric vehicle space from all the major automobile manufacturers. But, what does this mean for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles which were one of the alternative technologies for fossil fuel based systems? Is the future completely battery-based electric vehicle or is there scope for other technologies to compete?
Not everyone is giving up on fuel cells. There has been some significant news regarding fuel cell vehicles this month. Asian automotive giants are the ones keeping the fuel cell hope alive. Recently, Hyundai announced that it will pilot 35 hydrogen buses (FCEB) in seven cities in South Korea and will also supply a 1000 units of hydrogen-electric trucks to Switzerland by 2023 in a staggered manner. They also plan to have an annual production capacity of 500,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030. This project is similar to the ‘CHIC program’ in Europe which plans to pilot 90 FCEBs in 35 European cities.
Hyundai has also formed an alliance for ‘Hydrogen economy’ which it co-leads along with Air Liquide and has members such as Toyota, Honda, BMW, Total, etc. Hyundai also recently announced a partnership with the Canadian car-sharing co-operative Modo, which will now have two Hyundai FCEVs called Nexo. Shell had launched a hydrogen fueling station in British Columbia a few months back.
Japan has always been the biggest proponent of Hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota has put in a significant amount of money in research over the years and has the highest number of patents in this domain. It also has the commercially available Mirai but has very low production volumes of about 10 per day. FCEVs still are comparatively much expensive. Mirai costs about $70,000 and Nexo around $72000. With the Japanese government’s subsidies the cost for Mirai comes down to $50000 which is still an expensive proposition. Also, there is the challenge of very few hydrogen fueling stations.
Only California has half the world’s operating FCEVs due to the better availability of fueling stations. But, the Japanese energy ministry has ambitious plans leading up to the Olympics 2020 for the hydrogen economy. Japan also has an ambitious ‘Strategic Energy Plan’ with a 30-year road-map for manufacturing, transportation, and storage of hydrogen. The government itself is spending significant money in developing the infrastructure for the hydrogen economy. Also, the private sector in Japan is also pushing for the cause with Toyota leading the way. In March 2018, a group of 11 Japanese companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, launched a venture called Japan H2 Mobility to build 80 hydrogen fueling stations by 2022.
Japan is the largest importer of petroleum and coal for its energy needs. Will the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, it is also cutting down on nuclear power. This makes it uniquely positioned to adopt the hydrogen economy. Even China’s State Council in a surprise move, announced on March 15, 2019, a proposal to promote the development and construction of fueling stations for hydrogen fuel-cell cars. This is significant as China is a leader the battery electric vehicle manufacturing and adoption. With the Chinese government push, there might be a considerable activity the fuel cell domain as well in the next few years.
The challenges of hydrogen fuel cells still persist and would require substantial research. Currently, the costs of production, storage of hydrogen is very high. Also, a lot of it is still produced from fossil fuels making the ‘sustainability’ aspect questionable. Although FCEVs have very fast refueling, the fueling station infrastructure is virtually non-present and building a new hydrogen fuel station itself is very costly.
Toyota partnered with the Dutch Institute for fundamental energy research to develop a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. Various such concepts to develop clean hydrogen at a large-scale, as well as new structure of fuel cells are under research. With the push from the Asian nations, there could be considerable progress in this domain. Also, Audi announced new investments in fuel cell cars a few days back. It seems that European car manufacturers also may not have given up on the hydrogen economy!
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