The clock’s ticking. By 2030, many European countries will have ICE phase-out bans in place. Luckily, there’s a wide range of impressive battery-fuelled EVs coming onto the market at a variety of price points. But what about that other environmentally friendly alternative: the hydrogen fuel cell car? Here’s our take on the pros and cons:
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the smallest and lightest element, consisting of only one proton (a small positively charged particle) and one electron (a small negatively charged particle). As a gas, hydrogen is colourless, odourless, non-corrosive, non-oxidizing, non-radioactive, non-carcinogenic and non-toxic. Hydrogen is produced when you use electricity to split water into oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H2). Because this process is also reversible, hydrogen can be converted into electricity by adding oxygen, releasing water as a by-product. Hydrogen is thus completely CO2-free and therefore a nice emission-free driving alternative.
How does a hydrogen fuel cell car work?
Just like an “ordinary” electric car is equipped with a battery, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has electric motors. The only difference is that a hydrogen car has just a small battery and one or more hydrogen tanks, as well as a fuel cell. By adding oxygen, this fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity and water via an electrochemical process. The electricity is used to provide the car battery with the necessary energy and the clean water is discharged in the form of water vapour.
Are hydrogen cars a viable alternative to BEVs?
We’ve compared some facts about hydrogen cars with battery powered EVs (or BEVs), as well as petrol and diesel cars, to find out whether the hydrogen car could become a serious contender.
First of all, the pros. Recent world events and skyrocketing energy prices have led to discontent with dependence on oil and gas producing nations for energy. This has made fuel cell technology a compelling alternative to not only petrol and diesel cars but also BEVs. In addition to being emission free, a major advantage of hydrogen cars is that refuelling is comparable to filling up an LPG tank. That means, unlike with the relatively long charging time of battery powered EVs, with a hydrogen car you can be back on the road within a few minutes. Most hydrogen cars also have a longer range than ‘regular’ EVs. What’s more, the acceleration of EV adoption could lead to shortages of lithium, which is required to make EV batteries, in the coming decades. This could drive a transition to hydrogen fuel cells for luxury cars and larger vehicles.
Despite these major advantages, there are currently few hydrogen early adopters, which means filling stations across much of Europe are pretty rare – making range anxiety a major issue even though hydrogen vehicles offer more range. It’s the classic chicken and egg dilemma: few drivers equal few filling stations, and few filling stations mean that fewer people are likely to choose a hydrogen car. In addition, while there are more and more battery-powered EVs to choose from, there’s only a limited number of hydrogen models currently on the market. The most talked-about models currently include the Hyundai Nexo, Honda Clarity Fuel Cell car, Viritech’s Apricale hypercar and Toyota’s Mirai and bZ4X models.
Another issue is cost. As hydrogen is an emerging technology, residual values are still uncertain, which means that the monthly lease rate in many countries is relatively high compared to BEVs or ICE vehicles. That said, hydrogen cars are also eligible for a variety of tax benefits, which can make them a financially attractive alternative for lease drivers.
Some experts think that hydrogen fuel cells are an ideal fit for the heavy duty transport sector (think of buses, trucks, trains and ships) and industrial applications that require both heat and electricity. Randy MacEwen, CEO of Ballard Power Systems, a fuel cell product manufacturer said this week, “We are seeing growing global demand and policy support for zero emission transport as companies strive to reach decarbonization targets. Our new collaboration with Quantron accelerates our entry into the European truck market and we aim to have Quantron’s initial hydrogen-powered, zero emission trucks on the road in the next 18 months.”
The pros of hydrogen cars
- Zero emissions
- Energy security (use of the most world’s most abundant resource)
- Fast refuelling compared to EVs
- Variety of tax benefits in many European countries
- Good driving range compared to EVs
- Extensive warranties
- No need for lithium
The cons of hydrogen cars
- Hydrogen refuelling stations are rare
- Limited vehicle choice
- Hydrogen fuel cell cars are expensive
- Uncertain residual values
Loop Energy unveiled a new hydrogen fuel cell at the IAA Transportation 2022 conference in Germany this week. The hydrogen fuel cell startup claims its product provides better fuel economy than diesel engines and marks “a milestone” for the transport industry’s transition to clean energy. The widespread use of fuel cell technology has been hampered by one of its primary components: platinum, which is expensive and scarce. However, a European team led by Imperial College London researchers has created a catalyst using cheap and readily available iron, carbon and nitrogen. This development could lead to better green energy options in the future. The Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of energy, transport and industry companies, predicts that by 2050 hydrogen may power over 400 million passenger cars worldwide as well as some 20 million trucks and 5 million buses. At LeasePlan, we’re always asking “What's next in mobility?”, and we will continue to monitor developments in the field of hydrogen cars.