Hydrogen fuel cell vs Battery Electric

As the calls to combat climate change become increasingly louder, the interest in an alternative to carbon-based energy heightens. Because our combustible engines used in daily commute emit a lot of carbon dioxide, finding a greener and more environmentally friendly option is believed by many to help us reduce the greenhouse gas. There are two main approaches to replacing gas in our vehicles: hydrogen fuel cell and lithium-ion batteries. I spent a few days reading up on this topic because I believe that it will be an important aspect of our lives moving forward and I was looking for a new investment opportunity. If you aren’t familiar with the topic, the clip below is a very great summary

Hydrogen fuel cells contain higher energy density and release energy on demand, instead of packing it all in a container like Lithium-ion batteries. Because of its higher energy density, hydrogen powers vehicles over a much longer distance than the current batteries can. If battery electric vehicles want to cover a longer distance, they have to be equipped with bigger and heavier batteries which, in turn, require more energy to be transported. A classic Catch-22 problem. Moreover, because hydrogen fuel cells use hydrogen stored in a separate tank and oxygen from the air to produce energy on demand, it’s much faster to charge than batteries. While battery electric vehicles (BEV) take like an hour to charge, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) take as long as an ordinary trip to the gas station. Hence, if we’re just talking about energy density and time taken to charge a vehicle, FCEVs are clear winners.

However, the story isn’t that simple. The problems with FCEVs start upstream, before the fuel goes into the vehicles. Even though hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements, it doesn’t exist as a standalone. It takes energy to produce pure hydrogen, store it and transport it to where the end users are. Because there is a lot of inefficiency and work to be done to deliver hydrogen as fuel, the costs in hydrogen production are currently much higher than the costs required to produce Lithium-ion batteries. As a consequence, FCEVs are significantly more expensive than BEVs, rendering it a much smaller and less consumer-friendly market than BEVs. From a manufacturer point of view, that serves a roadblock to the economies of scale. But if they can’t achieve economies of scale, it’s not easier to lower the price of FCEVs. Another Catch-22.

Hydrogen fuel and Battery efficiency rate
Source: Greencarreports

Due to their potential contribution in our fight against climate change and superior efficiency over burning gasoline in a propulsion, battery and hydrogen fuel technologies have received increasing support from governments around the world in terms of subsidies, research grants and friendly regulations. This kind of support will help fine-tune the technologies, accelerate the adoption and make them more economically viable. I believe that they both have a place in our society in the near future. BEVs already have a leg up in scale over FCEVs. Proponents of BEVs such as Tesla or Volkswagen already achieve the scale they need to make their vehicles economically appealing to consumers. As demand grows, so will the scale; which will drive down the total cost of ownership of BEVs even more. Supporters of FCEVs such as Honda, Hyundai and Toyota still believe in the potential of hydrogen fuel in passenger cars, but they have to solve the problem of producing and transporting hydrogen. On the other hand, batteries’ low energy density, barring any technological advances in the future, make them virtually disqualified for large transportation means such as trucks or planes. Due to its high energy density, hydrogen fuel is more apt to use in trucks, cargos, ships, planes or other commercial cases. Microsoft already uses hydrogen fuel to power their data centers. Walmart and Amazon are two prominent clients of Plug Power, a major producer of hydrogen fuel turnkey solutions.

Even though batteries and hydrogen fuel can provide greener energy, their net contribution to our planet remains a question mark. As mentioned above, it takes a lot of energy to produce pure hydrogen and as of now, there is inefficiency from when hydrogen is produced to when it goes into a car’s tank. If a hydrogen producer burns natural gas such as methane to get pure hydrogen, the cost will be cheaper than other methods, but the process will be harmful to our environment. If hydrogen is produced by using electricity, especially electricity from renewable sources (sun, wind), to break down water into constituents (this method is called electrolysis), the environmental harm will be lower, but this method is more expensive. Plus, the most efficient method of electrolysis right now uses Platinum, which is not a cheap material and whose mining can be detrimental to our nature.

On the other hand, the downside of Lithium-ion battery, in addition to those mentioned above, is the extract of Lithium. The mining practice is controversial in some countries such as Bolivia and can leave a lasting impact since requires a lot of water to extract Lithium, as you can see below.

This field is developing fast and sophisticated that the more I read up on it, the more interested I am. By no means do I think that by just spending a few days on research, I became an expert. Not even close. I will continue to educate myself on this important avenue and hope that this is helpful to you and triggers your interest.

Cost of ownership of a 300-ton dump truck when using Diesel or Fuel Cells
Source: Hydrogen Council
cost of ownership of a heavy-duty truck when using Diesel or Fuel Cells
Source: Hydrogen Council
US operational cost for a bus breakdown (FCEV vs BEV)
Source: Deloitte
Current policy support for hydrogen deployment
Source: IEA.org