Fuel cell: the future of the automobile?
In only three minutes, a hydrogen-powered car can have about twice the range of an electric car and the only residue it produces is water. If the number of filling stations increases while the technology’s price decreases, hydrogen might be the perfect “fuel” for tomorrow’s cars and a suitable backup for surplus electricity produced.
Today, nearly all car manufacturers are developing electric cars. For the most part, they decide to use batteries as the source for their electricity but even if huge progress has been made in the past ten to twenty years, battery electric vehicles (BEV) still only manage 300 km of range. Some like Tesla offer more range but the cost increases exponential with it. Also, charging a battery electric vehicle takes hours.
Fuel cell technology
On the other hand, fuel cell technology is ready. A fuel cell car is powered by an electric motor, just like a BEV. But instead of using batteries for storing its electricity, it uses hydrogen. Thanks to a chemical process called catalysis, the addition of oxygen (O2) to hydrogen (H) creates electricity and the only residue it produces is water vapor (H2O).
The electricity produced by the fuel cell is used to power the electric engine. The principal was already discovered in 1939 but its industrial use dates as far back as the 60’s, initiated by General Electric.
Today, Toyota with its Mirai and Hyundai with its ix35 are the leaders in this field. Other projects are in development at Honda or Daimler. The first one having already commercialized its Clarity and the latter is currently developing a GLC-F Cell for 2018.
Good range but prices are still high
Last year, only 2.500 fuel cell cars were sold worldwide against 700.000 BEVs. However, the fuel cell technology has many advantages. “Fuel cell car usage is similar to combustion engine cars”, explains the president of the French association of fuel cell and hydrogen industries, Pascal Mauberger.
“Unlike electricity, hydrogen comes as a liquid and can be charged in the high-pressure reservoir in about 3 to 4 minutes. It gives the fuel cell cars a range of 500 to 600 km. A Tesla takes 20 minutes at a super-charger to get a 80% range capacity.”
“For the current embryonic fuel cell market to grow, it will have to overcome some obstacles. The first one is the fuel cell cars price. Today, a Hyundai ix35 costs more than € 60.000 and a Toyota Mirai costs nearly € 80.000. For sales to increase, prices have to go down. Only the arrival of new models and a stronger competition will make prices decrease. We’ve seen that case for BEVs.”
Hydrogen filling station network
The second obstacle to overcome is the current low number of filling stations. Where France counts 4.500 BEVs charging points only twenty hydrogen filling stations are to be found. In Belgium, the case is even worse with one public filling station at Zaventem. No one would buy a fuel cell car if they had to drive hundreds of kilometers to find a filling station.
The problem is that building a hydrogen station is said to cost about 1 million euro. “In reality, the cost is variable. Depending on the size, it ranges from 200.000 to 2 or 3 million euro”, explains Pascal Mauberger. Contrary to BEV charging stations, the number of hydrogen filling station doesn’t have to be as high thanks to the fuel cell’s bigger range. “For France, only 500 stations should be enough”, adds Pascal Mauberger.
Renewable energy storage
Not only is the fuel cell technology clean with a larger range than batteries, it also provides a good way to store surplus electricity. “The electricity network faces a renewable energy challenge, but it wasn’t created for that”, explains Mr Mauberger, “today it needs flexibility, and that is precisely what hydrogen provides”.
Theoretically, hydrogen is the perfect solution. When there is sunshine or wind but the electric network is already saturated, this surplus can be used to create hydrogen from the air. This gas can then be stored in high-pressure tanks and produce electricity when needed through catalysis.
Creating and keeping energy in the form of liquid hydrogen could therefore resolve the current intermittence problem of electricity production and consumption.