Battery powered electric cars the answer, or does Hydrogen hold the future?

Fuel cell electric vehicles — Source: Wikipedia

Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for over 150 years, offering a source of energy that is 100% clean and in abundance. Hydrogen fuel-cell (HFC) vehicles of the electric variety, use hydrogen to react with oxygen in order to power an electric motor, with the only by-product being heat and water. Unlike battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs), their range and refueling processes are comparable to conventional cars and trucks. The question is can HFC vehicles provide a viable future to the masses?

Like BEVs, HFC vehicles offer zero emissions from operation, being powered from renewable sources of energy, however, BEVs have taken a march on its competition. BEVs are considered as the immediate future of changing the trajectory of transport industry away from fossil fuels. Governments around the world continue to offer their support in the form of subsidies for BEV ownership and home charging, along with the implementation of public battery charging infrastructure.

The attraction towards BEVs has been a result of technology readiness, battery chemistries, storage, charging capabilities and price competitiveness has drawn significant industry investment in battery R&D and production capacity. BMW has committed to EV mass production by 2020, furthermore, having a range of twelve models by 2025. Tesla’s Gigafactory claims once in full production will reduce the cost of battery packs by 35%. Bloomberg reports that global battery-making capacity is set to more than double by 2021, which will evidently increase the price competitiveness of BEVs.

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology has pitfalls that taint its attraction for the time being. Fuel-cell durability is not convincing, there are safety concerns of large tanks of hydrogen fuel causing range anxiety. Efficiency issues, the losses incurred in hydrogen fuel-cell production is far too large, considered to be problematic for mass producing, and finally, there is no infrastructure in place for producing and distributing large quantities of hydrogen.

Developments in battery technologies have far outweighed those of hydrogen fuel-cells to date, however that doesn’t mean this current trajectory will continue, current technological developments in hydrogen are considered promising.

In fact, in many instances, hydrogen cars are more environmentally friendly than electric ones as they have a longer potential range, can be refueled in minutes and do not require the manufacturing of a bulky battery.

Under existing technology, pure hydrogen is obtained by pouring water through a membrane made from the precious metal palladium, which allows large quantities of hydrogen to come out the other side. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, A team of researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), believe to have found a cheaper and more durable membrane in graphite and Silicon Carbide.

Written in the Silicon Republic the head of the study, Ravinda Datta had this to say. “By demonstrating the feasibility of sandwiched liquid-metal membranes, we have opened the door to a highly promising new area of hydrogen energy research,” the question lies in whether the technology can be effective in industrial scale production.

US Army Scientists and Engineers made a discovery in July this year, which has the potential to reinvigorate the hydrogen fuel industry. Aluminium that could react with water in a sustainable way would be able to produce hydrogen on demand, meaning no need to transport pressurised unstable hydrogen, instead using tanks of water and aluminium would reduce safety concerns

The point being technological advancements continue to address constants with hydrogen fuel-cells production and practicalities of operation. Many remain sceptical but, I wouldn’t rule out the potential of hydrogen technology disrupting vehicle transportation sector just yet.

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Trevor Townsend

CEO Startupbootcamp Australia Founder, Board Member and Startup Investor: Energy, FinTech and Sports.