“UK has backed the right horse in hydrogen vs battery electric vehicle debate”

With the popularity of hydrogen fuel cell technology seemingly increasing, EV Powered looks at whether the UK has backed the wrong horse with battery electric vehicles.

Despite recent prominence, the concept and application of hydrogen fuel cells is not new. The earliest fuel cells date back to 1839, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s when that technology was introduced into vehicles.

Since then, there have been various prototypes and inventions, but in today’s world, there are only a handful of hydrogen powered cars in the mainstream market, mainly the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. BMW also flirted with the technology, with a limited production version of an X5.

Conversely, the world of battery electric vehicles (BEV) has exploded into life. There is a wide variety of BEVs available today, with many of the major OEMs outlining plans to ramp up their production of battery electric vehicles, most recently Peugeot, which confirmed 70% of its vehicles this year will be electric. Alongside the production of vehicles, the infrastructure for BEVs has developed to a point where the future is ready to be electrified.

However, whilst the Government and major car manufacturers have placed their bets on battery electric vehicles leading the way for transport and mobility, a few question marks have been raised as to whether hydrogen fuel cell technology should have been championed instead.

Last month, Ross Clarke of the Daily Mail asked why the UK hasn’t backed the “real green machines” in reference to hydrogen vehicles and claimed that buying an electric car instead of a hydrogen one may be a decision you “bitterly regret.”

Whilst there are many different arguments between the two vehicle types, the market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is certainly growing, according to James Hoxey, senior commercial manager for battery technology at Williams Advanced Engineering, which has years of experience working with both hydrogen and battery EVs.

He said: “We’ve got several ongoing projects across a number of markets which feature fuel cell EV powertrains, which tells us that the industry is looking for adoption in some usage cases.

“I think the OEMs realise that hydrogen is an abundant element, so clearly the renewability and sustainability story is there.”

One of the major benefits of hydrogen technology is the ability to refuel much quicker than charging a battery electric vehicle. To regain 300 miles worth of range for a hydrogen EV, it would take around five minutes, compared to the 40-odd minutes it’d take on most battery EVs, depending on the charger.

Although that may be the case in general terms, the truth behind hydrogen fuel cell vehicles defeats the point of why the country was moving to zero-emission vehicles in the first places.

Whilst there are ways to produce ‘green hydrogen’ through solar power, for example, Hoxey says that the majority of hydrogen comes from fossil fuel-derived processes or gas reforming processes.

Hoxey explained that, whilst battery electric vehicles depend on lithium for their batteries, lithium is the fourth most abundant element in the earth’s core. Hydrogen, however, relies on platinum, which is a much more scarce raw material.

“We’re going to end up in this situation where you’re going to have an expensive precious metal in the vehicle and that will create its own problems,” he added.

As well as this, from an engineering standpoint, many hydrogen vehicles still have an electric battery on board. Hoxey said: “It is a more complex vehicle, there’s no way around that. The majority of these fuel cell EVs still need a battery. So, you still come back to having a battery system in the vehicle anyway, and you’re just strapping a hydrogen fuel cell onto it.”

Safety is another issue. Hydrogen still relies on burning derivatives of fossil fuels in order to power the vehicle in most cases, apart from the green hydrogen which uses electrolysis (passing electric currents through water).

Obviously, when you are burning a fuel type, there is a safety element to consider and although hydrogen is flammable at around three times the temperature of fuel, it is a factor to consider when weighing up the pros and cons of hydrogen EVs and battery EVs.

However, the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles cannot be ignored and there are a number of environments and applications where hydrogen is the better option to a battery EV.

In his article, Ross Clarke points out that for larger vehicles and industries, such as haulage, hydrogen is by far the better option, as it takes less time to refuel and can generally achieve greater ranges.

Hoxey agrees: “I see a strong future for hydrogen in certain markets. For some of our customers, it’s an absolute no-brainer for them to go for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and they have the right toolkit to deliver that.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the last few years with Anglo-American, where we delivered the battery systems for their fuel cell EVs.”

Global mining company, Anglo American, partnered with Williams Advanced Engineering to develop its new Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV): an ultra-class electrically powered mining haul truck, which is set to be the world’s largest hydrogen powered mine truck.

The FCEV haul truck is powered by a hydrogen Fuel Cell Module paired with a WAE scalable high-power modular lithium-ion battery system and controlled by a high voltage power distribution unit delivering in excess of 1,000 kWh of energy storage. Through regenerative braking, the battery system will be capable of recovering energy as the haul truck travels downhill.

“That argument makes sense,” Hoxey said. “Uptime is critical to mining, for example, where effectively refueling is a cost. Not because you need to put something into the vehicle but because that vehicle is not running.

“Refueling at the scale of larger vehicles is going to be much faster with hydrogen than most cases, compared to EV. That’s because you need to facilitate kilowatt scale charging to have that fast charge. The technology exists for that but it’s not always available. In some cases, it will be better overall if you put hydrogen in the vehicle. It’s big thinking for the bigger scale problems.”

For applications in the ‘rough world’ such as farming and mining, hydrogen fuel cell technology appears to make the most sense and that is exactly why Jaguar Land Rover is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell prototype.

Ralph Clague, head of hydrogen and fuel cells for Jaguar Land Rover, commented on the project: “We know hydrogen has a role to play in the future powertrain mix across the whole transport industry, and alongside battery electric vehicles, it offers another zero tailpipe emission solution for the specific capabilities and requirements of Jaguar Land Rover’s world class line-up of vehicles.”

Those specific capabilities are exactly why Hoxey believes the market for hydrogen vehicles will continue to grow, particularly in the industrial world.

Despite this, he thinks the technology will always be second place to battery electric vehicles, which rule the automotive world.

“We’re nowhere near the right volume levels for hydrogen vehicles,” Hoxey said. “So whether or not we’ve backed the right horse in the UK, globally, it’s very clear from the money that’s being spent, that electricity for passenger cars is the way the country is going to move.

“You’ve only got to look at Elon Musk in the US to realise how much of a market he’s captured by ignoring everything else and just developing battery EVs. The OEMs like Volkswagen are now coming to the table with competitive products so to an extent, you only have to look outside the UK to see that we’ve probably backed the right horse with electric vehicle development.

“I would take the position that it will be second place to a battery EV. I think we’re so far down the line and there’s so much infrastructure in place and so many big companies have spent a lot of money moving to EVs that I don’t see hydrogen overtaking that position.”

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