In the clean technology sector, hydrogen remains an incredibly debated subject, with some viewing it as anything from a vacuous concept to a real threat to electric cars.
To address this divide, I spoke with Michael Perschke (watch the video interview found at the end of this article). Perschke has been the CEO of Audi India, founding CEO of Automobili Pininfarina, and now CEO at Quantron AG, a German company producing electric and fuel cell trucks and buses.
Before debating these two forms of propulsion, it’s vital to understand how each functions.
The Basics of EV Versus Hydrogen:
In a battery electric vehicle, its propulsion system is relatively straightforward: the battery is the energy source, and the electric motors utilize that energy for propulsion. When fully charged, the lithium ions stay in the anode, but they tend towards the cathode to become more stable when the circuit is closed. As the lithium ions travel through the separator, the electrons travel through a circuit, thus generating electricity.
When an electric car decelerates, the electric motors can act as a generator and recuperate electricity back into the battery pack. Depending on the model, these battery packs can range from around 30kWh for daily commuters to north of 100kWh for long-distance cruisers.
Like a battery electric vehicle, a fuel cell car (FCEV) functions similarly. Instead of a large battery pack, it has a small one similar to what you’d find in a traditional hybrid, like a Prius. An FCEV powertrain also houses an electric motor, which drives the vehicle 100% of the time. But most importantly, there’s a fuel cell.
Hydrogen is inserted from the onboard tanks on one end of the fuel cell, called the anode. At the anode, catalyzing reactions occur, stripping an electron from the hydrogen. On the cathode, oxygen, filtered from the environment, attracts the positively charged hydrogen to form water While the hydrogen travels across to the cathode, the electron is sent through a circuit, which generates electricity.
While the fuel cell is the most significant component of the system, the battery is also a necessity for efficiency. Since the car uses an electric motor, there is a possibility for a regenerative gain. The small battery is primarily used for regenerative braking purposes, but it can also charge during regular fuel cell operation.
What Are The Drawbacks to Hydrogen?
For hydrogen-powered cars, there are several drawbacks compared to electrics. The most prominent in America are the lack of infrastructure and expensive fueling costs. For public hydrogen refueling stations, the only locations where they exist are in California. On top of that, the main cities housing these stations are in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. For all intents and purposes, say you own a 2022 Toyota Mirai and want to drive from LA to Sequoia National Forest. Since it has a range of 402 miles, you’d have to make sure that wherever you’re going isn’t farther than 200 miles away, or else you won’t be able to make it back, and that would be cutting it close. Essentially, a hydrogen car is limited to in-city driving with today’s infrastructure.
On the topic of infrastructure, hydrogen is currently pricey. A kilogram costs between $10 to $15. A typical FCEV like the Hyundai Nexo holds around 6.3 kgs with a range of 380 miles. That means it would cost between $63 and $95 to go 380 miles. Even comparing this California’s costly energy rate of $0.23 per kWh (EIA) with a Mercedes EQS 450+, it would be around $25 to go a full 350 miles, or $27 for 380 miles (with an additional charge).
So, the point stands, an electric car is simply cheaper to operate and more versatile than an FCEV, but is there still a place for them?
According to Perschke, hydrogen vehicles still have a place, but that position is not in the personal vehicle segment. "I personally believe that having a passenger car on hydrogen is not needed," Perschke said. "We are soon going to see 350 to 500 miles becoming the new standard." With over 350 miles of range, most drivers would not need to alter their driving habits completely.
However, a domain where EVs lag is in mid to long-distance trucking. While there are some options on the road now, like the Nikola Tre, most are aimed at short-distance and last-mile delivery type scenarios. For those situations, an electric truck like the Tre is excellent, but it just wouldn't work too well for long-distance applications.
"When on paper these trucks claim to do 250 to 300 miles, the real range of these trucks is [much less]," Perschke told InsideEVs. "If the grid doesn't give the charging you expect, you can be on the charging port for a couple of hours; this is where we see hydrogen."
While hydrogen trucks will still have a much higher upfront price than a comparable diesel truck, ESG ratings and zero-emission European cities will help sway OEMs to make the switch. Suppose your company doesn't have a zero-emission fleet. In that case, you may not be able to deliver your goods to customers, or worse, your ESG rating could take a hit, threatening the possibility of delisting.
Albeit, Perschke acknowledges that we're in a nascent stage in the adoption of hydrogen. "We are in the hydrogen economy [now], probably where Elon Musk was in 2010 or 2012," Perschke said. The infrastructure will surely have to grow to adopt hydrogen trucks, but in certain European countries where Quantron does most of its business dealings, demand seems to be soaring.
For America, it's just a race of time and technology. If Tesla can prove itself in range and performance with the Semi, electric could win, but there's still some hope for hydrogen.