Is the world ready for Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles?
Elon Musk’s “mindbogglingly stupid option” statement on hydrogen powered cars while Toyota, Hyundai and Honda’s believe in the hydrogen fuel technology has created two different approaches for research in automotive industry. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have gone through several stages of proving their efficiency, safety and reliability but have overlooked from battery/electric driven technologies. These FCEVs whose tailpipe emissions are nothing but water is still not considered as the best suitable option for eradicating vehicular emissions even though hydrogen has advantages over batteries.
Hydrogen is highly flammable due to its low ignition temperature and has a wide initiation range for air-fuel mixture. But it stands out from oil derived fuels by being lighter than air. This means, if hydrogen by any chance flames in FECVs, it will rise in upward direction without harming the vehicle or any passenger sitting inside. Hydrogen(H2) has less volume for storage making it faster and easier to cover the same distance range as compared to Electric Vehicle (EV) batteries; whereas, a lithium-ion battery system requires about six times more weight and twice the volume to allow comparable driving ranges (e.g. 500 km). It won’t even consume your time for refueling.
If these are “actual zero emissions” and “best range” vehicles, why are we opting for EV than FCEV?
If we compare end to end solution, this is where hydrogen vehicles fall behind than battery vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell stacks are expensive as it uses platinum which costs around $30,000 a kilo while a lithium carbonate (used to make lithium-ion batteries) costs $20 only a kilo. Producing H2 is one difficulty. Though in abundance, H2 stored in the form of water, methane and organic matter which makes it difficult to extract. Unlike EV, Hydrogen doesn’t have an infrastructure luxury to start with. It must be produced by compressing it to 790 atm times to obtain the required density of hydrogen at the cost of loss in energy of H2. But it is still a viable option than liquefying H2 and then storing it which results in more energy loss.
Hydrogen must be in pure form to be supplied to vehicles. If it is supplied through pipelines, it would reduce the pressure, and if it’s carried in pressurized tanks, its cost and flammability will make it an impossible case. Then why not build a hydrogen production facility in the main station itself? This was made possible by one of the largest oil refining companies, Shell, with an objective to reduce overall hydrogen development cost, which now produces 80kg of hydrogen per day. But, though we make a hydrogen production system in the main station like Shell, it will just eliminate the transport cost. Cost of storage and production is still a bottleneck because less quantity of hydrogen is produced in such installations.
Recent research indicates that use of formic acid, which is the combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide can reduce the cost of production and transportation for H2. If the use of formic acid can help reduce the cost at user end as well, it can help in faster adoption of FCEV because currently, FCEVs have high purchase and maintenance cost as compared with BEVs. So, what’s the conclusion? BEV or FCEV? Both being zero emission vehicles, having certain advantages over each other, BEV sounds the sensible option right now in terms of cost effectiveness. But yes, developments will surely lead FCEV in being a viable option.