The UN climate talks in Egypt culminated this week with an agreement by developed countries to pay for the environmental damage they have caused in poorer regions. Disappointing many observers, the summit failed to achieve a highly anticipated commitment to phase out fossil fuels globally. Still, efforts to shift away from carbon emissions – particularly in the automotive sector – are accelerating.
According to UN figures, transportation accounts for roughly one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and 95% of that energy still comes from fossil fuels. While most attention in the attempt to decarbonize the automotive sector has been focused on battery electric vehicles (BEVs), another approach is simultaneously being developed: hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars.
In China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, authorities announced on March 23 earlier this year a long-term plan to expand domestic hydrogen production. The blueprint, which spans from 2021 to 2035, includes far more applications than just passenger vehicles, with a target of producing 200,000 tons of carbon-free hydrogen per year by 2025.
The unveiling of these policies set off a buzz of activity. One recent Chinese article pointed out that 445 domestic startups related to hydrogen energy have been added so far in 2022 alone. Capital markets are also increasingly taking notice, as evidenced this week by Zhejiang-based SinoSynergy’s application for an IPO in Hong Kong.
Anthony Patt, Professor of Climate Policy at ETH Zürich’s Department of Environmental Systems Science, told Pandaily that, while China is already the world’s leading producer of hydrogen with about 33 million tons generated annually, the proposed 200,000 tons of so-called “green hydrogen” would only account for about 0.6% of the country’s total production. However, Patt added that this plan “is very important as the first step in moving towards entirely green hydrogen production by mid-century. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The allure of hydrogen cars
Proponents of hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles emphasize their short charging times of just a few minutes, long driving range that is comparable to fuel-based vehicles, clean emissions of just pure water and warm air, and the abundancy of hydrogen in our universe.
Like BEVs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles operate on electricity. However, instead of using power from a chargeable battery embedded in the vehicle, hydrogen-powered cars use fuel cell stacks that split individual hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons. The isolated electrons then generate a charge used to propel the vehicle, while the protons combine with oxygen to produce water molecules as emissions.
Despite hydrogen’s advantages, past years have witnessed exploding activity in the BEV sector as traditional automakers compete to catch up with a market metamorphosis. Some firms, though, are continuing to pursue the development of hydrogen-powered models, and China is shaping out to be one of the leading trial zones.
Toyota – which manufacturers one of the only hydrogen-powered vehicles currently available on the mass market, the Mirai midsize sedan – held a groundbreaking event in Beijing last month for a new fuel cell research and production facility.
Many Chinese automotive firms, while maintaining primary focus on the thriving BEV field, are also trying to catch the hydrogen wave. In early October, state-owned auto giant SAIC released a fleet of 80 MAXUS MIFA fuel cell minivans in Shanghai that can be booked for trips by local consumers. Great Wall Motor has also been one of China’s most active automakers in the fuel cell field, with reports emerging earlier this year that it intends to launch a high-end hydrogen-powered car brand in the near future.
When it comes to mass marketization, major hurdles remain. While filling up takes a much shorter amount of time than charging BEVs, hydrogen-powered vehicles depend on specialized fueling points, and such facilities are currently few and far between.
In the United States, hydrogen fueling stations are now mainly only available in California, while a few in Hawaii have also been constructed. The country’s authorities are targeting the establishment of 200 stations in California by 2025 and 1,000 by 2030.
In China, officials announced that as of late June of this year, over 270 hydrogen fueling stations had already been completed – the most of any single country in the world.
Compared with the vast network of EV charging points that have sprung up throughout the past decade, however, these figures are miniscule. As green vehicle infrastructure continues to expand, hydrogen faces a steep uphill climb to become a viable option for consumers.
Another oft-cited drawback of hydrogen-based vehicles is their energy efficiency, or lack thereof. One report shows that with BEVs, 8% of the energy is lost while transferring energy to the battery, then a further 18% while driving, resulting in overall energy efficiency of around 70-80%. Hydrogen-based models, on the other hand, lose much more energy in a conversion process called electrolysis, with final efficiency typically reaching only 25-35%.
Tesla’s Elon Musk has been a prominent critic of the hydrogen-based approach, having called it during an event earlier this year “the most dumb thing I could possibly imagine for energy storage.”
Speaking of the past year’s market trends, Professor Patt of ETH Zürich told Pandaily, “on the technology side we have seen battery-electric applications continue to advance, making the business case for hydrogen even weaker in all those places where it competes against electricity.”
Filling the cracks
For now, BEVs seem to have won the battle for decarbonizing the global passenger vehicle sector. Nonetheless, hydrogen fuel cell technology will undoubtedly play a key role in certain niche sectors, both within and beyond the automotive industry, wherever it makes the most market and technological sense.
“It could well be that hydrogen becomes the energy carrier for some fraction of our energy use, perhaps as much as 5-10%,” says Patt. “That is a lot of hydrogen, although it is also a lot less than pro-hydrogen lobbyists are trying to convince us of.”
Hangzhou-based automotive giant Geely has found one such market slot. During the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, the firm deployed a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses at a frigid sporting venue in Zhangjiakou, pointing out that “compared to battery electric vehicles which suffer from up to 50% reduction in range and charging speed as temperatures dip, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles suffer from almost no reduction in range or refueling time.”
Wan Gang, a prominent Chinese automotive expert and the country’s former Minister of Science and Technology, said in a 2019 interview with Bloomberg that “electric and fuel cell cars are both important. They have their own focuses. For example, in cities people prefer to take electric cars, while inter-cities people prefer fuel cell cars.”
Given hydrogen’s well documented shortcomings in the automotive sector, ambitious plans such as China’s may cause some observers to scratch their heads. But even if fuel cell vehicles never catch up with battery-based alternatives, they still just might find a few wide-open lanes.