Electric vs Hydrogen

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With the global zero-emissions pathway fast becoming a vital component for the future of transportation and only eight years until the UK government plans to halt the sale of all petrol and diesel vehicles, the need to transition away from internal combustion engines (ICEs) is fast approaching.

While many experts believe battery electric vehicles (EVs) are the present, could hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) become the future? 

ICEs are a thing of the past as far as mobility is concerned and seemingly EVs are fast becoming firm favourites among both private consumers and commercial fleets alike, in a bid to embrace emission-free motoring. However, with car manufacturers, Toyota and Hyundai already producing hydrogen-fuelled cars, (Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai)  other luxury car companies such as BMW and  Land Rover are fast beginning to follow suit.

“Every single major manufacturer is either looking at or working on hydrogen cars” Jon Hunt - Marketing Manager for Toyota and Head of Commercialisation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

When comparing electric vehicles with hydrogen vehicles, it’s important to better understand how each technology works. Let’s take a closer look at these two types of green vehicles:

What are battery electric vehicles (EVs)?

Conventional battery-electric vehicles (EVs) which we more commonly know as electric vehicles are powered by batteries that are charged to power a vehicle’s motor.

Instead of fuel combusting to provide energy to the engine, a rechargeable battery is used to supply electricity to a motor, which then turns the wheels and powers other elements of the vehicle.

Because they run on electricity, electric vehicles emit no exhaust from tailpipes and do not contain any of the typical liquid fuel components in ICE vehicles such as fuel tanks and fuel lines.

When it comes to running electric vehicles, they can be recharged by plugging into electric charge points via sockets, public charging stations or home chargers and can take up to several hours to fully charge. 

Once fully charged, electric vehicles have an average of between 100 and 300 miles of range depending on the model and time of year (larger range in summer and smaller range in winter).

Advantages of battery electric vehicles 

- Zero-emissions - as they have no tailpipe, gases are not emitted, therefore reducing any air pollution

- Lower running and maintenance costs than petrol/diesel as well as hydrogen power - on average, an electric car costs less than £1.30 to drive 100 miles

- EV government grants can help with the transition for both business and domestic use vehicles, including help with charging points at home and at work and lower vehicle purchase costs

- Due to their lower centre of gravity, EVs improve handling and safety on the road

- Significantly low noise pollution, as you can drive smoothly without heavy acceleration

- EV batteries can last for more than ten years and with technological advancement, their costs can be expected to be reduced even further

- Lower purchase price than hydrogen vehicles

- Better charging infrastructure - a larger number of charging options in more convenient locations than hydrogen charge points

Disadvantages of battery electric vehicles 

- Electric charging stations are not as abundant in less built-up areas 

- Initial purchase investment is higher than ICE vehicles 

- Limited driving range between 50-100 miles, so appropriate for shorter distance drives

- Significantly longer charging time of several hours to fully charge a battery

What are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs)?

Instead of internal combustible engines, hydrogen-powered vehicles have fuel cells that store hydrogen and oxygen. These are then able to power the vehicle with chemical reactions between the two elements to create water and electricity and in turn. this electricity is then used to fuel the motor.

Sometimes known as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCVs) these hydrogen-powered vehicles also have exhaust tailpipes, however, only water is emitted from them.

Much like conventional diesel and petrol vehicles, when it comes to refuelling a hydrogen vehicle, its hydrogen fuel cell needs to be filled with hydrogen via pressurised tanks at specific fuelling stations and can be fully refuelled in a matter of minutes.

For each full tank of hydrogen, the car will gain approximately 200-250 miles of range.

Advantages of hydrogen vehicles 

- The main advantage of hydrogen vehicles is that the only emission from the tailpipe is water, making them extremely eco-friendly 

- The vehicles can be fully refuelled in a matter of minutes 

- Hydrogen fuel cells are much lighter than batteries

- Ideal for commercial vehicles and transport as they charge much quicker than EVs and have a longer driving range

- Longer driving range - approx 200-250 miles from fully filled

Disadvantages of hydrogen vehicles

- Lack of infrastructure. There are very limited refuelling stations currently in the UK (under 15) and the expansion of infrastructure is expensive

- FCVs cannot be charged at people’s homes

- Safety concerns around the production of hydrogen and storage facilities, as hydrogen gas is extremely flammable

- Hydrogen vehicles are expensive to buy and maintain through ongoing running costs compared to EVs. An average car price in the UK is approximately £60,000 to buy compared to £20,000 for an EV

- Expensive charging costs - a kg of hydrogen costs around £10-£15 in the UK and a vehicle such as the Toyota Mirai holds 5kg, making it expensive to fill compared to an EV (approx £8 to home charge an electric car)

Is there a future for hydrogen vehicles?

At the present time, it's quite realistic to say that electric vehicles are more popular and mainstream than hydrogen-fuelled cars.

The biggest barrier to the adoption of hydrogen technology is the lack of existing infrastructure. The UK is currently lacking in gas production, transport, storage, and dispensing facilities on any usable scale making it very difficult for hydrogen vehicles to be easily adopted.

Coupled with the higher costs of re-fuelling, charging of the vehicles and the initial vehicle purchase investment, without further technological developments and support to lower the costs, it may be some time before hydrogen vehicles grow in popularity.

Currently, governments worldwide are investing in the infrastructure required to roll out electric technology on a large scale. Electric charging stations are becoming much more commonplace across cities, from motorway service stations to car parks and along many local neighbourhood streets as well as domestic home charging points.

However, rather than pitching electric vehicles vs hydrogen vehicles, it may be more valuable to consider electric and hydrogen vehicles as part of a shared landscape. 

One thing we can be most certain of; the future will see everyone adopting green vehicles (whether battery-powered or hydrogen-fuelled) in the bid to reach the road to zero and the transition away from ICEs.

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