Is the hydrogen car the future of our travels?

Sales of battery electric cars are on the rise across Europe and, according to the annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report, more are sold every week today than in all of 2012. But despite this growing popularity , shortages of key battery components, including lithium, nickel and cobalt, could threaten supply. So is it time to focus on hydrogen?

Unlike Europe, where there are only a handful of hydrogen cars on sale and around 228 refueling stations, Asia is betting on hydrogen. The Japanese government plans to have 800,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road by 2030, while China has set an ambitious goal of one million vehicles by 2035.

These pioneers are likely to drive down costs, increase volumes and expand the supply chain.

Automakers also remain divided and, with the exception of Toyota and Hyundai, few are investing heavily in hydrogen. More recently, however, BMW has renewed its interest and sees hydrogen cars as having a role to play alongside battery-electric cars. They plan to launch a small number of BMW iX5 Hydrogens worldwide from the end of this year, for trial purposes at first.

“As a versatile energy source, hydrogen has a key role to play on the road to climate neutrality”says Oliver Zipse, Chairman of the Board of Directors of BMW AG.

The Stellantis Group has also undertaken limited production of hydrogen-powered commercial vans. But not everyone agrees; Mercedes, like Audi, have halted plans to market hydrogen fuel cell cars.

What is the difference between an electric car and a hydrogen car?

Simply put, a battery electric vehicle is powered by electricity stored in a battery and is recharged by plugging into the power grid.

A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle generates its own electricity through a chemical reaction in its fuel cell. This electricity then powers the engine and the only emission is water vapour. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are refueled at specific service stations.

The advantage of a hydrogen car is that it can refuel in the same time as a petrol or diesel car, has a similar range and produces zero emissions.

So why is hydrogen struggling to take hold? Hydrogen faces a number of challenges, ranging from low efficiency to high costs.

Low efficiency due to large energy losses

The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is through electrolysis, which involves using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. But this process consumes a lot of energy and its yield is well below 100%.

When you transport the hydrogen to a filling station, the losses are even greater and, even if you can avoid the transport stage, the cost of storage is also high.

It is estimated that by the time you hit the road and the hydrogen is converted into electricity in the car, only around 38% of the initial electricity is used.

Poor infrastructure

The main selling point of hydrogen cars is that they can fill up in minutes, but finding a place to fuel such a car is very difficult. Herein lies the chicken and egg problem: who will buy hydrogen cars if refueling stations don’t exist? And who will invest in refueling stations if cars are not available?

The initial investment risk of building infrastructure is far too high for a single company. Solving this problem will likely require planning and coordination between governments, industry and investors.

Hydrogen is highly flammable

Hydrogen is highly flammable, difficult to store and poses a safety risk in the event of an accident. However, automakers like Toyota insist that fuel cell electric cars are as safe as conventional vehicles.

The Japanese automaker has spent many years testing hydrogen cars in extreme conditions and temperatures to ensure they can be used safely and reliably.

What hydrogen cars can you buy?

While new electric cars are launched regularly, only two hydrogen cars are available for sale in Europe: the Hyundai Nexo SUV and the Toyota Mirai.

Hydrogen cars are not only expensive to buy, but also to supply fuel. The magnitude of their cost compared to charging an electric car also differs considerably from country to country.

What does the future hold for hydrogen cars and electric cars?

The question of whether the two technologies have their place is not yet decided.

Low-consumption electric vehicles are not without problems: they are expensive to buy and recharging can take considerable time.

Also, electric cars may not produce tailpipe emissions, but the battery’s power sources, recycling of its components, and vehicle and battery manufacturing contribute to carbon emissions. Finally, the extraction of many raw materials raises ethical and environmental issues.