One Finite Planet

Battery Electric Cars? Or Is Hydrogen The Future For Cars?

Table of Contents

A friend recently told me "I am not interesting in electric cars because I will wait for hydrogen cars".  It turns out that hydrogen cars were never "the ultimate" and only viable as an interim step on the path to electric cars.

Background: Hydrogen Myths and Misconceptions Summary.

I now have a separate exploration of hydrogen facts and myths, but here is a summary of the points relevant to the future with cars.

The abundance of Hydrogen is often misrepresented, if an presentation on hydrogen cars starts the abundance of hydrogen, it is focusing on deception. While The Universe is around 70% Hydrogen, the Earth is only 0.14% Hydrogen, and bringing Hydrogen from space is not an option. Electrons on the other hand outnumber hydrogen atoms and all other atoms, both in the Universe and on Earth.

There is no freely available or ready to mine hydrogen. The hydrogen we have here on Earth is mostly locked up in water, or in fossil fuels. To release Hydrogen from water, ‘green hydrogen‘, electricity is required, but this process can be sustainable if the electricity is from renewable sources.

So far most hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels (blue or grey hydrogen), as this is less expensive than green hydrogen, but use for cars produces the same amount of CO2, and more, than running cars directly on fossil fuel.

Hydrogen is neither particularly abundant on Earth, nor does it exist as an energy source.

For more see:

History Of Hydrogen, and Battery, Zero Emissions Vehicles.

The History of Hydrogen Cars: Cars As We Know Them, But Zero Emissions.

A Safe Way To Move To Zero Emissions.

Understanding the history of hydrogen cars requires assuming one premise that, while a perfectly reasonable premise 20 years, is more questionable today. The premise is:

The are segments of the motor vehicle industry where electric vehicles are not viable alternatives for internal combustion engine vehicles.

The proposal for these segments is: hydrogen vehicles.

There is no hydrogen vs electric scenario here, it is that when electric vehicles are not feasible, then you need hydrogen.

The GM EV1 program was cancelled as not viable, the 1997 Rav4 EV had a top speed of 117 km/h (75mph) , 0-60mph time of 18 seconds, and a range of less than 100 miles( 160km). Coming to the conclusion that electric vehicles were unsuitable for many applications on the evidence available was easy to understand.

I live in Australia, and there are still many people who believe electric vehicles and not viable, and not about to be viable, for the long distances many people in Australia need to travel. Then there is long haul trucking and “road trains”. There are problems electric vehicles have not yet solved, and mixed opinions about whether these problems will ever be solved by electric vehicles.

That is why we have hydrogen cars.

There is a principle that almost anything you can do with fossil fuels, you can find aw to do using hydrogen, and thus eliminate the emissions. Moving to hydrogen power is a direct evolution from fossil fuels.

The belief is that hydrogen cars can provide a green solution, where one would not exist otherwise. Consider the main talking points when people ‘pitch’ hydrogen cars:

  • Zero tailpipe emissions: which makes it clear the competition is seen as fossil fuelled vehicles.
  • Hydrogen is abundant: as opposed to their could be shortages, which are not likely with electrons either
  • It drives just like a regular car: Again, the comparison is not with electric vehicles.

This was thinking behind hydrogen cars at the outset. Some early hydrogen cars could even burn hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, and switch between gasoline/petrol and hydrogen. The technology can at least in theory be that similar.

A Boring And Unappealing Move To Zero Emissions.

Hydrogen cars are also ‘just like’ conventional cars, in that they do not bring any advances.

Hydrogen is not a ‘better’ fuel. There is a reason why nobody used hydrogen fuelled cars before, in that hydrogen produces less energy than fossil fuels, which is why hydrogen cars require larger fuel tanks than fossil fuelled cars to achieve the similar.

Plus, while electric motors can produce stunning performance, hydrogen fuel cells cannot deliver the current to support that performance, which is why industry leading hydrogen cars flagship cars like the Toyota Miria accelerate from 0-100km (0-60mph) in at best 9.6 seconds.

Toyota is using hydrogen combustion cars for racing and performance, but these have range and fuel economy less than 50% of what is achieved by the already energy inefficient fuel cell vehicles. Yes, they keep the performance of internal combustion engines alive, but is that still completive?

The bottom line is, yes, we can have zero emission vehicles just like the cars we are familiar with, but they will be less desirable than the cars we are familiar with.

Without regulations forcing a move to zero emission vehicles, or huge incentives to buy them, hydrogen cars are just not desirable.

History Of Electric Cars.

Up To 1960s: Boring EVs Lose Out To Exciting High Performance “Freedom Machines”

Battery electric cars pre-date internal combustion engine cars, and prior to the Ford Model-T, the internal combustion engine was not dominant.

In the United States by the turn of the century, 40 percent of automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline.

Wikipedia: The history of the Electric Vehicle.

Sales or early EVs peaked in the 1910s, with cars such as the Ford Model T (1908-1927) providing a package that included far better range, and a refuelling system that did not require a national electricity grid. Relative to gasoline cars which were increasingly exciting, providing range to travel the county and speed for rapid travel, electric cars were slow, boring, and limited to being “city cars”.

By the 1920s, electric vehicle had become limited to application where the short range and low speed were not a problem, and “for most of the 20th century the majority of the world’s battery electric road vehicles were British milk floats” (wikipedia). There were still attempts to again market consumer electric vehicles, using higher voltage batteries using a series of lead acid cells, but these were largely uncompetitive in the market.

1954 Corvette

In the end, it comes down to the question of “superpowers”. The person with an EV gained a far less impressive set of superpowers than the person with a Chevrolet Corvette. Maybe of the image makeover in trading the Henny Kilowatt for a Corvette is an extreme example, but the Henny was about as exciting as electric vehicles could be.

1960s to 2010: ‘Green Cars” are Meant To Be Boring!

The far more crowded world with better infrastructure found a growing niche for the boring city car. Of course they are boring, they are environmentally responsible!

From the GM EV1 to the Rav4 EV, there were EVs that it became clear people loved. Just only a relatively small group of people.

Pike Research estimated there were almost 479,000 NEVs (Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles) on the world’s roads in 2011. (Wikipedia)

2010-2021 Lithium Batteries and Who Is Boring Now? (2021 Update)

Yes, the Ferrari SF90 does use electric motors at the front to out race the McLaren 7265LT, for the fastest production car using an internal combustion engine, but neither is a match for the Rimac Nevera electric supercar.

So how did we get to the here from boring “city cars”?

To the point where the fastest production Porsche ever made can be beaten by an electric SUV?

Well… it started with some of those people that loved an EV from the previous era. The GM EV1, but thought “what could we do if we had Lithium Ion batteries? So the started a company called Tesla to find out, and who was one the people they went to to get finance? Elon Musk. And, as they say, the rest is history. It started to dawn on more and more people that when your technology is not limited to one chemistry, new chemistries can rewrite the rules. Li Ion batteries already exceed 5x what was possible with lead acid batteries, and 5x better performance is a huge step alone, even before considering the advances in other technology in the power train.

2021-….: Newer Chemistry Batteries and Bye Bye Internal Combustion. (2021 Update)

EVs are now faster, and sufficiently practical to now be variable for almost all motor vehicle applications. Yet people are working with technology that can realise another 4x or 5x step up in battery energy density, taking EVs to that next step, where they can match, and if we like pass the range of fossil fuel vehicles. More profoundly, it allows considering entirely new horizons for vehicles, that were never possible before.

Parallel Solutions: Battery Electric Cars For A Niche, Hydrogen For Mainstream.

Compliance Cars: A Key To The History Of Zero Emission Vehicles.

California introduced a bill requiring all of the seven largest car makers supplying that state had have 2% of the vehicles they sold as “zero emission vehicles” by 1998.

When a car maker introduces a zero emission vehicle specifically to comply with such a regulation, and sells the vehicles only in numbers and markets where to meet a regulation of this nature, this is known as a compliance car. Compliance cars, are cars sold for less than the cost of bringing them to market. If there is a profit for each vehicle sold, then why limit sales? This is why cars such as the Toyota Rav4 EV sere sold only in California, and only in limited numbers.

California was not the only location for such trails, and for example the Sour Korean Government worked together with Hyundai from 1998 to also produce zero emission “compliance car” vehicles.

The products brought to market were compliance vehicles, and although not profitable, they could still result in development of technology that would one day lead to profits. They gave manufacturers a chance to prepare for a time when regulations might require all cars to be zero emission vehicles.

A future where it was thought electric vehicles would fill a niche role, and the rest of the market could become hydrogen powered.

Step 1: From 1997, Hydrogen Cars & EVs Built As ‘Compliance Car” Technology Trials.

Hydrogen vehicles date back to California with Toyota in 1997, and Hyundai in 2000 in Korea, and modern electric vehicles compliance cars include the Toyota Rav4 EV in 1997 in California. The GM EV1 was produced even prior to compliance requirements, although that vehicle was also never profitable.

The biggest problem with hydrogen cars were:

  1. The only improvement over gasoline/petrol/diesel cars is lower emissions.
    • Hydrogen cars have less range with similar size fuel tanks.
    • Hydrogen cars have less performance with similar engines (see BMW Hydrogen 7)
  2. Running costs of Hydrogen cars using ‘green hydrogen’ far are higher than staying with fossil fuels.
  3. Combined effect of 1 and 2, means hydrogen cars are a solution for a green future, but would only be chosen when penalties and taxes made fossil fuel vehicles too expensive.

Battery electric cars could always be at least 3x more efficient than hydrogen cars, and around 4x more efficient than internal combustion engine cars, that is dictated by be physics. However, despite the lower running costs, there were compelling reasons why battery electric cars would never be for everyone:

  • Battery electric cars were slow: The 1997 Rav4 EV has a tops speed of 117 km/h (75mph) and a 0-60mph time of 18 seconds.
  • Range of battery electric was less than 100 miles( 160km).
  • Recharging times were measuring in hours, not minutes.

Overall, at the time, the hydrogen cars were closer to the performance and range of “conventional” cars, and although as step backward in many ways, it seemed they could become a viable, emission free, replacement technology. EVs were far less expensive to operate, even compared with “conventional” cars, but the understand was, the limited range and power would forever relegate batter electric vehicles to special niche applications, such as inner city cars. For most cars to be zero emission, hydrogen would be the solution.

Step 2: 2010, Hydrogen Compliance Cars Vs Battery Electric Niche Cars.

Hydrogen: Compliance Cars Paving the Way For A Zero Emission Future.

Hydrogen cars improved, with the with the BMW hydrogen 7, the Honda Clarity (2008-2014), the Toyota Mirai 2014-Present), and the Hyundai ix35 (2013-2018). With larger tanks, range was now acceptable, and performance was also on a par with many typical non sporting mainstream cars. No reviewer was ever really “wowed” by any aspect of hydrogen cars, other than they felt perfectly normal and had zero tailpipe emissions. Hydrogen cars provided an assurance that when were were all forced to drive zero emmision vehicels, The relief was, the future, when the cars came in volume, we could all drive zero emission vehicles, and still have “normal” cars. However, all of these cars were still compliance cars, sold in limited numbers in select markets as proof of concept.

Mitsubishi 2009 iMiEV
EVs Production Niche 1: Zero Emission City Cars.

The situation with battery EVs was quite different. Their range was still just as bad as before, but they had something they could do better than current cars, beyond the elimination of emissions: they were very low cost to run, and you could charge them at home. In fact they still took so long to charge, it was still best if you were able to charge at home.

So if the range and performance had not improved much, what had improved? It turns out, it was the price. Batteries had become lighter and less expensive, to the point where cars like the Mitsubishi iMiEV and Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe could be sold as production cars.

These were not compliance cars, but cars anyone could buy. Not many people would buy them, due to the compromises of range and recharging, but they were zero emission vehicles the general public could buy.

The Nissan Leaf, first released in 2010 with a 21kW battery, was at the time considered a revolution. This was a mass produced electric car with just over 100km (67 miles) of range if driven carefully, and the acceleration was now an acceptable 9.9 seconds 0-100km/h (0-60mph). But factor in that most people would want at least of 30km (18 miles) of range in reserve when they recharge, this was still a niche car, only for driving in the city.

EVs Production/Compliance Niche 2: The Expensive High Performance Zero Emission Vehicle.

Tesla gave zero emission vehicles a halo car with the roadster, launched in 2008, but with most vehicles shipped in 2012.

Tesla answered the question, “What if a car had a large enough battery to leverage the performance enabled by electric motors? “

Tesla, founded in 2003 by engineers inspired by the General Motors EV1 project, had the vison from the outset to make a performance electric car: the Tesla roadster. When they sought funding, Elon Musk joined the project, became heavily involved, and in 2008, took over as CEO.

The roadster It was till a niche car, but it was a new niche for electric cars. The longest range of any electric car at the time time at over 200 miles or 320 km ,and the first with lithium-ion batteries. But the roadster was still not a vehicle that “can replace traditional cars”, and despite being a small car with a large batter, it still had nothing like the range promised, if not yet delivered, by hydrogen cars.

Step 3: 2012-2018: Production EVs Bridge The Divide, Hydrogen Cars Remain “Compliance”.

The Leaf was continuing to improve, and offered provide a practical, relatively affordable, zero emission vehicle that offered low cost motoring, and could be charged at home.

Prior to the Tesla model S, the belief was there would be two types of cars:

  • Electric cars for specific niches where their short range and slow recharge times were acceptable.
    • and
  • “Mainstream” cars which would eventually move from gasoline/petrol/diesel to hydrogen.

In fact there was even a quote from a senior executive at I believe it was Hyundai, who called Teslas “toy cars”, due to his believe that “real” zero emission cars would be Hydrogen cars. (edit: a reference here, but still looking for the original quote).

It was the 2013, Tesla Model S that took first battery electric cars from a niche solution that could exist alongside either gasoline/petrol/diesel, or one day, hydrogen, to being a contender for at least most cars.

The Model S initially delivered a similar range to the roadster, from a full size sedan with astounding acceleration. Here was a zero emission vehicle that brought a smile to the face of those who drove it. The maximum range of 250 miles(400km) was still below that typical of most cars, and it took an hour to “fast” recharge, but clearly for some people the car had appeal.

The result was that the applications where battery electric was previously unworkable, began falling.

Whether the range and recharge limitation could be overcome was largely determined by confirmation bias. Those deeply invested in hydrogen still believed EVs, could not be “Real” cars, which would need another technology: hydrogen. The 3x better efficiency and lower running costs of EVs meant there were niches for electric cars, but most people, paying the higher running costs of hydrogen would be the only practical solution.

Today, in 2018, electric vehicles are still far slower to recharge and have less range than internal combustion cars, but cars with a range to match or even surpass hydrogen cars are on the horizon. Hydrogen cars are sill compliance cars where the appeal often is dependant of the level of subsidy being offered to that results in an expensive car at an affordable price, even though this is in no way a benefit of hydrogen technology, which remains expensive. At the same time, EVs are still a trade off, but they bring bring a lot to trade, from performance and simplicity, to charge at home convenience.

2022 Update: Fast forward to 2022, and there are electric cars with over 500 miles/800km (Lucid Air), 600 miles/ 1,000 km (Aion LX, Neta S) even over 1,000 miles/ 1,600 of range (Aptera), and the world is turned upside down. That always superior technology of the electric motor, suddenly, can now be used for real cars, and well before the industry was expecting such a change.

EVs Are City Cars.

The obvious “niche’ for electric cars, right form the outset, was the niche of the “city car”. Most people, have a daily need tor travel 100kn (60 miles) or less. A “city car” that is extremely efficient with a range of just over 100km per day would perfectly fulfill the vast majority of the needs of the vast majorly of people in an optimal manner.

Right from their first version, cars like the Mitsubishi iMiEV, Nissan Leaf and the Renault Zoe have been perfect city cars, and some car makers are still trapped into the mindset EVs make the perfect city car, and city cars are what people need. For the rare times people need more capabilities, it would be more logical to rent a car with the relevant extra capability. Why drive a Ferrari that is wonderful on a twisty mountain road, or a pickup that can handle challenging off terrain every day, when there are very few days most owners ever encounter those twisty mountain roads, or challenging off-road terrain, and these vehicles are compromised for the ‘city car’ role they spend most of their life playing?

The answer is because cars give superpowers, and people want those superpowers. They can even feel having the superpowers make them more attractive to the opposite sex. No matter how illogical it may seem to proponents of city cars, most people want a Ferrari or Pick-Up, and a city car is the last thing they want.

Why Are Hydrogen Cars Electric? Why Not Combust/Burn the Hydrogen?

Basic high school physics teaches us how burning hydrogen produces energy + water.  Rockets burn hydrogen, why not cars?  As explained here, because burning hydrogen is far less efficient than using hydrogen to generate electricity, and powering an electric motor with the electricity.  Just as lithium batteries use a chemical reaction to produce electric power, hydrogen cars use a controlled form of the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electric power. The result is an electric vehicle, powered by electric motors, that uses a hydrogen fuel cell in place of conventional battery technology.

The store the same energy is a gasoline tank, you need a hydrogen tank over 6x larger. However, because using a fuel cell and electric motor combination is so much more efficient than combustion, and thus requires less hydrogen, using a fuel cell can reduce the tank to just 3x larger than with a gasoline engine.

That being said, Toyota is still experimenting with hydrogen combustion engines, with a recent reveal of a special one off race car. An engineering analysis of that race car can be found on Engineering Explained. However, even with Toyota as the main supporter of Hydrogen for cars, their public support is for fuel cell cars, and even that support is just the one model, the limited release Toyota Mirai, compared to the 25 battery electric vehicles they have announced they will have by 2025.

Hydrogen Cars: How they Work and What they Cost.

The Components.

The video explains the working of the Toyota Mirai, a latest model state of the art Hydrogen car (2018) that is available to consumers in California for around US$50,000, however it is very clear this is a subsidised price.

The workings of a hydrogen car are the same as for a battery electric car, but with a smaller battery and the addition of a hydrogen tanks and the hydrogen fuel cell. Hydrogen from the tanks runs through the fuel cell in order to charge the battery. This allows peak power exceed what is available from the fuel cell, and regenerative braking to store power in the battery. In essence, the hydrogen car runs similar to a series hybrid.

Cost: Toyota Mirai vs EVs as an example.

Purchase Price.

The Toyota Miria is a ‘compliance car’, which means if you look on your local Toyota website from anywhere buy California, it is not listed. But for the moment, lets assume that Toyota was at that target price, or you live in California and do not care about the long term, you re interested in trying a Miria at the subsidised price.

This new model Mirai, now with a range of 640 km (400 miles), offers marginally better range than most production battery/electric competitors (e.g the RWD US$46,000 Telsa Model 3 ‘long range’ has only 600km/373miles of range) at the nominal price of the Miria in 2018.

Note the Mirai, with a 0-60mph time of 9.2 seconds, does not offer impressive performance, particularly when considering even the long range Tesla model 3 takes less than half that time at 4.4 seconds, never mind the Lucid Air can halve that time again. The Mirai is not fast. This is the general trend at this time. Both Toyota and Hyundai offer Hydrogen vehicles that have around 10% more range than equivalently priced battery electric vehicles, but with substantially lower performance than their battery equivalents. Note also that while battery electric vehicles are in mass production, hydrogen vehicles are for sale in limited numbers only and as such pricing is artificial.

For the real cost of the Mirai, you could get a Tesla model S with longer range than the Mirai at US$70,000, or even a 800km/500miles like the Lucid Air. But theory is, one day, when made in large volumes, the hydrogen cars will come close to the cost of the current compliance cars.

A limitation of the Mirai is a limited production compliance vehicle, only sold in limited numbers in very specific markets, and given the number sold and cost of R&D to produce any new car, it could be possible for Toyota at some time in the future to sell Mirai cars at the $50,00 price for a profit and so it could argued that it should be compared only with cars that cost $50,000.

However, there is a question of when, and given battery electric prices for a vehicle with 640km range continue to decrease as new models are released, the Mirai can only be compared with future EVs, so it does not look so good.

(Update 2021: EVs of similar range are now available for less).

Running Costs. An expensive car that is expensive to run.

The bottom line is that given the energy losses from the extra steps from green electricity to compressed hydrogen for the tanks for the fuel cell, then back to electricity, requires at the very least 3x the amount of electrical energy as battery electric cars, plus the funding of an entire new and costly infrastructure.

To achieve the long range, the Mirai has a fuel tank capacity of over 142 litres (over 37 US gallons). For comparison, a Toyota Prius uses gasoline, but can get a longer range from an 11 US gallon tank, and costs way less to refuel, as much as over 10x less. Contrast this with battery electric cars which cost far less then the Prius to refuel.

A strong point for the Mirai is that refuelling takes only 5 minutes, compared to 20 minutes to recharge the Lucid Air, or 30 minutes to recharge the Tesla model 3. Note that newer EVs than the Tesla, like the Hyundai Ionic 5, can be recharged even faster, but not as fast as refuelling the Miria. To match “refuelling’, you need to use “refuelling”, which in battery electric terms, means battery swapping. “Refuelling”, or in this case battery swapping, will always be more expensive than recharging, but it can be faster. Currently there are far more battery swapping stations in the world than hydrogen refuelling stations with vehicles such as the Nio allowing battery swapping, and even faster the hydrogen refuelling.

The Real Cars By Brand: Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW.

Toyota: Hydrogen As Part Of An Anti EV Campaign?

It seems Toyota is committed to any strategy that delays the move to EVs.

The Mirai has been discussed in pricing above, but why does a major automotive giant like Toyota back a technology that appears dead end?

Because, it turns out that despite being a leader with hybrids, Toyota feels electric vehicles will lead to huge job losses in Japan. This issue it seems, is not that hydrogen cars are so great, it is that battery electric cars are seen as a threat.

So fixed is Toyota on trying to stop electric vehicles, that the company is facing a consumer backlash and boycotts from environmental groups, over their lobbying and donations to those who vote against electronification.

The main reasons for backing hydrogen cars, is that doing so could slow or even derail the uptake of battery electric cars, which are a threat to:

  • Some existing automakers who will lose market share and as a result employ less staff.
  • Fossil fuel companies.

Not only are hydrogen cars seen as a way to delay the uptake of electric vehicles, but also as a potential market for ‘blue hydrogen’ for fossil fuel companies, and a way to retain pricing and profit for Toyota and some other car makers not ready for battery electric vehicles.

Hyundai: An Ambiguous Agenda.

Unlike every other maker brand still contemplating hydrogen, the Hyundai group has competitive electric vehicles already in the market, has been seen as well placed to benefit from the disruption of the move to EVs.

The Korean government is heavily promoting hydrogen, including the use of hydrogen to generate electricity even to power homes. But since ‘green hydrogen’ starts as electricity and thus converting ‘green hydrogen’ back to electricity means ending with what you started with, but losing 2/3 of it on the way, it suggests another source of hydrogen?

However, further analysis reveals Hyundai is also an oil and gas company, and it is possible that promoting a hydrogen future may be of more value to the oil gas

Honda: Abandoned Plans?

Honda did sell hydrogen vehicles in similar programs to the Toyota Mirai, but has stopped selling these now, and announced and EV roadmap that many regards as too little too late. As with most of the Japanese car industry, the future and the move to lower cost battery electric vehicles looks like being a difficult time for Honda.

BMW: A Long History With Hydrogen, But No Released Products.

BMW has released niche battery electric vehicles into the market since 2013, with the i3 and i7, with mainstream models to launch in 2021. However, hydrogen dates back to experiments in 2005-2007, and BMW still persists on the basis the fuel cell vehicles need not be dead yet. Whether BMW is also trying to buy time and delay the transition to EVs is unclear, but it does seem they would benefit if the transition took longer.

Pros and Cons for Hydrogen Cars.

The Case For Hydrogen Cars:

Familiarity.

An attraction of Hydrogen cars is that experience of refuelling is similar to the familiar experience of refuelling combustion cars. The same gas stations, operated by the same companies, could provide hydrogen refuelling, and the experience of refuelling would be similar to that with gasoline cars.

Low Fuel Weight

The key benefit of hydrogen is that the stored energy is much lighter that any alternative. The video below highlighting the problems of using hydrogen, quotes the difference at over 200x the stored energy per kg compared to batteries. That is a huge difference, and results in hydrogen being a viable option where the difference in the weight of stored energy is suffiently important, the cost of electricity is extremely low, or a combination of these two factors. Clearly, for aviation, that weight difference for the amount of energy required for a flight could easily the cost of the extra energy needed to extract and liquify hydrogen and other inefficiencies.

Fast Refuelling.

Conventional EV battery recharging can take hours and even over a day in some cases, and in a more direct comparison, current ‘rapid charge’ technology for EVs still takes around 20 minutes to deliver full range equivalent. A hydrogen vehicle like the Toyota Mirai can achieve full refuelling with 5 minutes. Refuelling times using hydrogen approach times to current refuelling with petroleum, diesel fuel or avgas. Although refuelling may be a little slower, in part due to the large size of the fuel tanks, refuelling times are still very nothing like slower electrical recharging times.

Range?

If there is room for a large amount of storage, then hydrogen cars can match the best of current battery technology, and with a far lower weight for a given amount of range. In vehicles such as planes, where wings could house the tanks for lightweight hydrogen, or ships, which can also accommodate large fuel tanks, the range of hydrogen vehicle can greatly exceed that possible with batteries.

Note: 2021-May-31st. Toyota just broke hydrogen range record.

The Case Against Hydrogen Cars.

Poor Efficiency

This video puts the case against Hydrogen simply: the truth about Hydrogen. In summary, it currently costs over 8x the price per kilometre/mile to run a Hydrogen fuelled vehicle in comparison to a battery electric vehicle. While this ratio could reduce there are just too many steps prevent it costs at the very least 2x or twice the energy and thus cost per kilometre. Sustainable use of hydrogen power requires using electricity to produce hydrogen, power to compress or supercooling the hydrogen for liquification, and then conversion of the hydrogen back to electricity inside the car. In summary, you need, in the best imaginable future, at least twice the electricity per kilometre to power a hydrogen car. The best imaginable future for Hydrogen would be where stored hydrogen was the original source of energy. Even then, hydrogen cars are less efficient, because most of the steps with losses still apply to squeezing the hydrogen into a car fuel tank that cannot efficiently be kept cool enough for liquid hydrogen. Without a way to avoid this resulting is double (and in reality, at least triple the cost for the electricity that reaches the engine in most cases).

Running Costs.

At least twice as much electricity is required to drive the same distance using Hydrogen power as battery power. Further, infrastructure to convert electricity into Hydrogen, store the Hydrogen, and then refuel a dangerous material that is difficult to contain will all add to the price or operating a Hydrogen vehicle.

Refuelling.

While it is a complete change in thinking, the ability to ‘refuel’ or recharge anywhere there is electricity available, can be far more appealing than refuelling with Hydrogen unless a new infrastructure is developed. Cars do spend long periods stationary, and almost any time a car is stationary becomes a potential refuelling time.

On road trips, there are already many electric recharge points, and while 20 minutes rapid charging an EV like new model Hyundai Ionic 5 is around 4x longer than the equivalent refuelling time for hydrogen, the refuelling is far less dangerous, which means you can go for a walk and have a coffee or a rest while refuelling. Refuelling Hydrogen requires full attention.

In practice, many electric cars typically have a longer immediate range than gasoline cars, because the behaviour of most people is to delay refuelling gasoline cars until the tank is nearly empty, while electric cars are kept charged. If regularly charged overnight as would be expected, each day an electric vehicle starts with a ‘full tank’.

Solar?

There are now several Solar EVs on the market, and even the Tesla Cybertruck with optional solar wings can enable normal use of the truck from solar power. People can use home solar to generate the power for their cars. How do you compete with that using hydrogen?

Fuel Supply Security & Flexibility.

Battery cars need energy, while fuel cell cars need a specific type of fuel in order to produce energy. Solar, wind, and even a hand crank can produced electricity. A solar mat will gradually refuel a battery vehicle in the middle of nowhere, but a fuel cell car specifically requires pressurised hydrogen.

Environmental Risks: Hydrogen vs Battery Electric.

There is one sustainability threat: loss of hydrogen!

Hydrogen is not without sustainability risks. Remember how the Earth has insufficient mass to have retained free Hydrogen when the Earth formed? Well, the Earth still loses Hydrogen every year, and separating Hydrogen accelerates that process, so any leaks of Hydrogen can be the ultimate in unsustainability, as the material not just in waste form, it is gone forever. When burning fossil fuels, at least all the atoms are still here on Earth. Although Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, here on Earth, Oxygen (47%), Silicon (28%) , Aluminium (8%) and Iron (5%) are the most commonly available elements, with Hydrogen down at 0.14%. Water is Hydrogen and Oxygen, so simply put, the less Hydrogen, the less water. And we would miss the water if we lose too much Hydrogen.

Battery production damages the environment. However, so does producing internal combustion engines. In some countries, production of electric cars does produce almost double the pollution of production of internal combustion engines. However, according to Forbes, but in western countries companies like Tesla and Mercedes produce electric cars

As such, the pollution created through the extraction process and production of batteries remains on par or slightly higher than the manufacturing process of petrol or diesel-based engines.

National System vs Internal Chemistry.

Every motor vehicle so far has been powered by chemical reactions, either inside batteries, with fuel cells and hydrogen, or some form of combustion. There are two ways to have the ingredients for these chemical reactions:

  1. Keep adding the chemicals for the reaction by refuelling the vehicle.
    • From steam to gasoline, diesel, LGP and even hydrogen fuel cell, this is how it has been done.
    • This requires a national systems, with infrastructure distributing the chemicals needed, and the infrastructure and vehicles all must change anytime the chemicals change.
  2. An internal system, with all chemicals for the reaction internal to the vehicle.
    • This is how battery EVs work.
    • The national system is independent the chemicals in use. Cars can be ‘recharged’ from any source of energy: solar cells, home power sockets or high speed chargers.
    • All chemicals are internal to the battery, and when connected to energy source, the battery recycles the chemicals.
    • As only energy is needed, the chemicals used can even change from car to car with no need for any new infrastructure.

The rapid progress with battery vehicles has been enabled by the closed loop, moving to another infrastructure that locks into energy from one specific chemical reaction is far more restrictive.

The appeal or hydrogen is that if you do desire an open loop, not recycled in the vehicle, give that the waste with hydrogen is water, this is the best open loop ‘dump the waste’ possible. However, that still doesn’t make the system competitive with closed loop systems. You can make a closed loop with hydrogen, but at this time, it is neither the most efficient, safe, economical, or environmentally sound choice for such a system.

Counterpoints

Pro-Hydrogen Claims Debunked.

Various claims are made by hydrogen car supporters. I think all of these can now be debunked, or are only advantages over fossil fuel cars, not over battery electric cars..

  • Zero tailpipe emissions.
    • Great in comparison with gasoline or diesel, but no improvement over any other electric car. Note that hydrogen combustion vehicles not only have half the range of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, they also do produce nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Familiar refuelling.
    • In fact putting hydrogen into tanks is problematic and takes a lot of space, and no equivalent system has so far been practical for mainstream usage, which is why there are many LPG cars but only a few hybrid CNG cars that have very limited range on CNG. Hydrogen takes the compressed gas problem to the next level.
  • Existing Infrastructure.
    • The same companies that sell gasoline and diesel can easily sell ‘blue hydrogen’, but is it so essential that we support those companies? The rest of the infrastructure changes.
  • Fast Refuelling.
    • There is an advantage here, but given what is happening with batteries, it will be an advantage for at most another 10 years, and that timeframe does not justify an interim system.
  • Long Range.
    • Possible, but only with special vehicles with huge tanks, which is why the longest range battery vehicles have longer range than the longest range hydrogen vehicles.
  • We can never make enough batteries for everyone to have an EV.
    • Not with current facilities, but we are closer than we are to being able to provide enough hydrogen. Neither problem is difficult to solve.
  • Battery production damages the environment.
    • It theory battery production does not need to harm the environment, but in practice it can. In practice, hydrogen production so far has been even more damaging to the environment.

Industry Initiatives: What Funds Hydrogen cars?

While Toyota, Honda and Hyundai all still have hydrogen cars, they are now all also committed, and even more committed with the possible exception of Toyota, to battery electric cars. Other manufacturers such as Volkswagen (which is approximately equal in size to Toyota) have long rejected hydrogen cars as having no future, and Cambridge university reached the same conclusion in their study.

There are vested interests, such as oil and gas companies, that could be expected to lobby for (blue) hydrogen as it could protect their interests, but it is difficult to see any push being successful for passenger cars. The main impact of hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars seems to be targeted at creating uncertainty on the future of electric cars, in order to slow the introduction of electric cars. Clearly oil and gas companies and most existing car manufacturers will lose revenue as a result of any move to electric cars. For car companies, the loss can be minimised by buying time to better prepare, but for the oil companies, there is even more incentive to mimic the behaviour of big tobacco when cigarette consumption smoking was threatened.

Hydrogen Hybrids: PHFCEV?

At one time it occurred to me that hydrogen hybrids might be a great idea, and it is discussed in detail here. The huge power to weight advantage of hydrogen for range, combined with the efficiency of electric for the daily commute. Far less weight carrying around the confidence giving extra range than using a large battery. Could it be the best of both worlds? Alas, it turns out again: “No”. Carrying the fuel cell itself, and that large volume hydrogen requires kills the idea, plus you are suddenly on 3x the running costs whenever you switch over to hydrogen.

Hydrogen Cars If There Is Already Hydrogen For Energy Storage?

Hydrogen does have significant potential as a form of stored energy. One big potential use of hydrogen is hydrogen for stored energy. I hydrogen is already being stored, wouldn’t that change the equation in favour of hydrogen cars? In short, no. Not even then.

Imagine a world where renewables are used to produce huge reserves of stored hydrogen. You might think, in such a future, putting some of that hydrogen into cars would be compelling. However, upon further analysis, even in that case powering the grid though hydrogen will still be the best way to get energy to cars.

In theory, if there is green hydrogen as stored energy, there could one day be ‘town gas’ using hydrogen through an urban gas network. In practice there are many challenges and if this did happen it would be many years from now and even then, would not provide hydrogen to locations on the highway that currently do not have such a gas network. For a long time, and perhaps forever, getting hydrogen to filling points would require tanker trucks. Filling tanker trucks with hydrogen, then driving the trucks and transferring that hydrogen into tanks are the filling stations, all adds cost and requires mechanisms to recompress gas, while the electricity grid is still needed at filling stations and transporting electricity is significantly less expensive and using a network that is already in place.

In summary, even if the power station is storing hydrogen, it is more efficient to send the energy from the hydrogen to recharging points than to transport hydrogen.

Conclusion.

When I first researched hydrogen cars vs battery cars, it seemed clear that hydrogen cars could not compete with electric cars. From this, I then wrongly assumed promoters of hydrogen cars must all be funded by the fossil fuel industry or something, and are tyring to sell blue hydrogen, or create FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) to slow the adoption of EVs, and prolong the use of fossil fuels.

Maybe some fossil fuel advocates look to the proposal of future hydrogen cars as delaying tactic, but I was wrong to think that was the main motive. The real issue is that confirmation bias and sunk cost bias stops some people realising or accepting that electric cars are already here.

Hydrogen cars are a way of replacing fossil fuel in the market segments where electric cars can’t. Problem for hydrogen, is that most people now see all those segments as already being solved by battery electric cars. As recently as 2010, the only zero emission cars with a range of over 100 miles, it seemed there was a real need for hydrogen cars, but now with 1,100 km range battery cars in sight, the need is not so real.

In 2018, when I first wrote this, many people believed hydrogen cars would still be needed for some applications, because electric cars would never be up to those tasks. Now, in 2022, many still promote hydrogen for long distance trucking, aviation, and even shipping, but the number of people believing in hydrogen for even these applications is dropping.

At best, hydrogen is a less efficient solution to problems we cannot yet solve with battery electric solutions. It is hydrogen that is the interim solution, due to the inherent inefficiencies with hydrogen, which mean it will always require at least three time the energy to produce the same result.

Electric vehicles today still have three limitations:

  1. The entry price is too expensive in markets other than in China.
  2. Road trip range is still more limited in typical EVs than in fossil fuel cars.
  3. Recharging is not as fast as refuelling.

We already have a better solution to each of these three problem with battery technology than we do with hydrogen.

  1. EVs are already available for a lower price than hydrogen cars, and China already has value entry price cars as low as U$8,000 (US$5,000 with subsidies), so it just needs the market to mature now and lower cost cars to become more widely available. Hydrogen cars are far more complex, and thus no solution to low cost cars.
  2. Road trip range of EVs has overtaken those of even hydrogen cars that are higher priced, and as battery chemistries continue to develop, EVs will from now increase this advantage.
  3. Battery swapping, refuelling for EVs is already far more widely deployed than hydrogen refuelling, with over 50x as many location. Yes battery swap is more expensive than recharging, but far less expensive than hydrogen refuelling, and eliminates needing to wait for recharging.

It now makes far more sense for to wait for EV prices to fall, batteries to improve, or typical range to increase, that to wait believing hydrogen car will deliver on any of these goals.

In answer to the original questions.

  • Hydrogen is only ever an interim solution for when battery electric is not ready, never the other way around.
  • There is no point waiting for hydrogen cars, only for battery cars to get even better if you do not feel they are good enough for you yet.


Added links:

Fully Charged: The future is not hydrogen.

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