Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t as “dumb” as Elon Musk makes them out to be. Here’s how they could improve the electric vehicle market

When Elon Musk called hydrogen fuel cells “the dumbest thing I could imagine for energy storage” in a recent interview, most people had probably never heard of the technology. And if they did, they likely associated it with the Hindenburg, the hydrogen-filled airship that caught fire and exploded 85 years ago.

But hydrogen fuel cell technology has come a long way in terms of safety and efficiency, and it could play an important role in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels, energy experts say.

Essentially, the technology works by extracting hydrogen from water or carbon fossil fuels and then reversing the process, combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms in an electrochemical cell to produce electricity, water vapor and a little heat. Fuel cell technology is two to three times more efficient than a gasoline engine. It also requires much smaller batteries than electric vehicles and has the potential to power light and heavy trucks, trains, buses, small planes and ocean-going vessels, as well as generating emergency power for hospitals. and data centers.

High manufacturing costs, lack of refueling infrastructure, and huge spending on green hydrogen have so far held back hydrogen. But that is finally starting to change.

Toyota recently announced that it is teaming up with Isuzu and other partners to develop fuel cell light trucks, with the aim of rolling them out in Japan next year. Renault and Hyundai are testing electric-hydrogen hybrid vehicles, and patents on the technology have exploded in recent years. As it grows, the costs are expected to come down further.

President Joe Biden is set to sign the Cut Inflation Act, which contains a landmark climate initiative that offers $3 per kilogram in tax credits for producing green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is much cleaner than blue hydrogen, produced from natural gas, and gray hydrogen, produced from coal. The bill also expands the electric vehicle tax credit to include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, providing up to $7,500 for new electric vehicles.

Ride the tail of the electric

With the widespread adoption of electric vehicles already underway, it could be too little too late for hydrogen fuel cells in the passenger car market. As of June 2021, there were only 40,000 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in circulation globally, less than 0.01% of the total global vehicle fleet.

“When it comes to the cars, I’m very skeptical. The race was won by electric cars, of which there are 15 million on the road,” says Margo T. Oge, former director of the EPA’s Bureau of Transportation and Air Quality, who is now Emeritus Fellow of the ClimateWorks Foundation.

California made a concerted effort to invest in fuel cell technology, but Oge says the initiative failed because it relied on blue hydrogen and lacked the infrastructure to support hydrogen cars: “Drivers couldn’t find places to fuel their vehicles.”

Oge believes that green hydrogen “has a role to play in decarbonizing the economy as a whole”, but for applications other than passenger cars, such as electricity, other modes of transport and production. of green steel.

Very little hydrogen is green so far, because electrolysis of water is energy-intensive and expensive, and there is not enough renewable energy available. As a result, the less durable blue hydrogen is still dominant and significantly cheaper.

“When we start investing in more natural gas to produce blue hydrogen, we’re just continuing to extend the life of fossil fuels,” Oge says.

Healthy competition

Others are more optimistic about hydrogen’s potential to make transport more sustainable and provide an alternative to electric vehicles.

Amy Adams, vice president of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies at Cummins, an Indiana-based engine manufacturer, predicts hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will reach parity with combustion engines internal, diesel and traditional electric by the end of the decade. — as long as technological innovations reduce costs and the refueling infrastructure is built.

Adams notes that much of this growth could come from commercial vehicles, where more efficient fuel cells have an advantage over the heavy electric batteries required.

“If you reduce the amount of cargo trucks are able to deliver, that’s a bad business model for shipping companies,” she says.

Adams adds that the cost of renewables to produce green hydrogen has come down significantly in recent years, and that advances in materials and technology have “lowered the cost of fuel cell materials.”

At Cummins, she saw the increase in fuel cell efficiency firsthand. The technology is now capable of powering 200 megawatt micro-grids and the demand for electrolyzers has increased significantly, further reducing costs. Last year, Cummins developed fuel cell modules for French railroad manufacturer Alstom, which introduced the world’s first passenger “hydrail”, the Coradia iLint.

Douglas Moore, general manager of Toyota’s fuel cell solutions team, agrees on the potential of hydrogen. For heavy-duty vehicles that require large payloads and travel long distances, he says, “the fuel cell solution is a clear winner, in that it is able to achieve this power in this range and this distance. for these shipper customers”.

Along with other applications in transportation and energy, he believes hydrogen fuel cell technology “can be a real contributor to carbon-neutral solutions and actually enable mobility through a very renewable process.”

As Patrick Molloy, a financial analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center, puts it, the competition between electric and hydrogen fuel cell technology is “good competition.” It will provide choice, ensuring that hydrogen is used where it is the best option.

“There are certain use cases that will provide better opportunities for one or the other,” he says. “The goal must be to transform our entire transportation system and make it a commercially viable and deployable zero-carbon pathway across all sections and segments.”

This story is part The path to zero a special series exploring how businesses can lead the fight against climate change.