Hydrogen – a bypass to electromobility?

A customer fills a car with hydrogen at a TrueZero fueling station in Mill Valley, California, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. California is spending more than $2.5 billion in clean energy funds to accelerate sales of hydrogen and battery vehicles. That includes $900 million earmarked to complete 200 hydrogen stations and 250,000 charging stations by 2025. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Hydrogen, used in a number of industrial applications nowadays, could also be widely used in the power industry and transport.

Development of electromobility is already an established element of the global economic landscape, most strongly visible in Western Europe, the USA, Japan and China. The visible growth of sales of electric vehicles is supported by the regulatory environment created by governments and cities interested in reaping the benefits of the decarbonisation of transport, reduction of air pollution, as well as the safety and efficiency of the energy system.

However, battery electric vehicles (BEV) are not the only way to achieve zero emissions in the automotive sector. Hydrogen, which is currently used for various industrial applications, could ultimately also be widely used in the energy and transport sectors, while hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) could become one of the key options for consumers in the future of modern mobility.

A hydrogen economy

The vision of a green, hydrogen economy assumes that hydrogen could be produced from water through electrolysis, storing surplus electricity in the short term, in which the only reaction by-product is oxygen. The fuel produced in this way would then be used in fuel cells, where, without combustion, the reverse reaction would occur – hydrogen, combining with oxygen, would generate electricity, heat and water.

Although energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness of this process are some of the biggest barriers to the development and implementation of this technology, it remains one of the most interesting options for the ecological management of energy surpluses. The issue of cost-effectiveness remains subjected to the adopted climate policy and detailed legislative solutions in the future.

Therefore, we must consider  two options of producing hydrogen: through electrolysis, which is still not cost-effective, or with the use of fossil fuels (e.g. methane steam reforming, hydrogen separation from coke-oven gas, oil production), which, by providing access to cheap fuel, will make it possible to popularise the use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen and electromobility

BEV and FCEV are constructed based on a similar scheme of operation. In hydrogen-powered vehicles, some of the batteries are replaced with hydrogen tanks and fuel cells, which act as a mobile power plant. As a result, the range of cars can be extended to over 700 km, and the refuelling time can be shortened to a few minutes, eliminating key disadvantages of BEV from the user’s point of view.

Reducing the number of batteries lowers the total demand for the rare earth elements used in their production, significantly interfering with the distribution of value in the supply chain among the various market participants.

Electromobility also concerns waterway and rail transport. While the hydrogen revolution is not to be expected on electrified railway lines, the replacement of diesel locomotives with vehicles equipped with new technologies is becoming a reality. The first hydrogen-powered train is already running on German tracks, with other countries’ plans (e.g. withdrawal of diesel locomotives in the UK by 2040) clearly indicating they are heading in a similar direction. With its relatively high concentration of refuelling infrastructure and limited levels of investment outlays, we can also hope for changes in the maritime transport industry.

Future of mobility

Although the first electric car was built at the end of the 19th century, it was the technological progress that helped achieve greater capacity and lower the cost of batteries, which contributed to the popularization of this solution. It seems that in the case of the hydrogen economy, a breakthrough may occur with the further dispersion of RES, which will change our perception of the energy market.

Even though this may take several decades, it is worth considering whether the existence of multi-fuel stations, where BEV and FCEV will both refuel in the future, is realistic. Will these technologies cannibalise or complement each other? It is certain that already today, key automotive companies are expanding their product portfolio with FCEV.

In the coming months, we can expect more information about large orders and plans related to hydrogen transport (e.g. the Swiss order  of thousand hydrogen powered trucks in the next five years, more buses for European cities, or the launch of the 100th hydrogen refuelling station in Germany in 2019). A revolution in the public perception of hydrogen could take place during the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in 2020, when the Olympic village will become an ambassador of this technology.

It seems, therefore, that the moment has come to decide whether we are going to take the risks and join the group of hydrogen technology pioneers or remain in a safe position and passively adapt to global trends.

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