Hydrogen: a revolution to build for the future of the electric vehicle?

Hydrogen is able to provide all of our mobility with an unprecedented form of ecological virtuosity. Yet still today, everything remains to be done to unlock the growth of this sector by removing its weaknesses.

The use of hydrogen (H2) as a fuel for transport has multiple advantages, both ecological and technical, as underlined by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) which states that H2 could provide energy tomorrow necessary for all our electric mobility, while greatly reducing CO2 and pollutant emissions.

– Its combustion only generates water vapor;

– It makes it possible to store and transport exceptional quantities of energy: 1 single kilo of H2 represents the same quantity of energy as 3 kg of petrol, 180 kg of Li-ion batteries or even 300 kg of NiMH batteries;

– It is present in an almost inexhaustible quantity (but rarely pure in its natural state because it is linked to other carbon, sulfur or oxygen atoms);

– It makes it possible to easily store and transport large quantities of energy (unlike electricity, the distribution of which generates losses and the storage of which is both volatile and limited in power);

– The energy represented by its storage facilitates the use of renewable energies by making it possible to compensate for their intermittence.

By taking into account all the stages of manufacturing the vehicle and its fuel, an electric vehicle (VE) with fuel cell (PAC) whose H2 would come from renewable (or low carbon) sector generates globally 2 times less CO₂ than a thermal vehicle, while emitting no pollutants to the exhaust.

There are still obstacles on the way to hydrogen

However, however great the advantages brought by H2, multiple obstacles to the development of this sector still exist at different levels. The first of these is the cost of manufacturing heat pumps. Although declining steadily, it is still too high for car manufacturers to currently offer vehicles equipped with high power batteries for a reasonable budget.

This difficulty is mainly explained by the price of the materials used and their quantity, which ultimately limits the power of the vehicle and the life of its battery: 30 € / kW for 5,000 hours and up to 1,000 € / kW per 100,000 hours Automobile manufacturers and scientists are therefore seeking to develop more profitable manufacturing processes, with Japan and Korea currently being the most advanced on this path.

The reciprocal wait-and-see attitude between the hydrogen production sector and the PAC transport sector is also a major obstacle. Each sector waiting for the other to develop at lower economic risk. In the end, no infrastructure worthy of the name, nor any complete range of vehicles is put on the market, particularly in Europe.

The preliminary installation of hydrogen-powered electric vehicles in captive fleets (utilities, public services, special airport or construction equipment, etc.) would initiate the deployment of an H2 infrastructure which would gradually “lift the locks” the marketing of a full range of fuel cell electric transport.

The industrial processes currently used to massively produce H2 also hamper the development of the sector. At present, it is almost exclusively a matter of methane vapor reforming and the electrolysis of water.

Unfortunately, steam reforming requires the use of a fossil source (natural gas, shale or petroleum cut) while the electrolysis of water consumes a little more electrical energy than that which will be restored by H2 during of its combustion. Therefore, ideally this initial energy supply should be provided by renewable sources (solar, wind, hydro, biomass) or nuclear, in sufficient quantities and at a competitive cost.

H2 also has the disadvantage of being stored in gaseous form at 700b (sometimes 350b), which requires equipping vehicles with robust and bulky tanks: 150 liters for 6 kg of fuel and 600 kilometers of autonomy real. What is more, this gas is explosive and highly flammable. But this risk is psychologically overestimated, safety measures exist and have already been tested by LPG and CNG vehicles. And tomorrow, solid storage of H2 in the form of metal hydride composites may become the norm.

All around the world, electromobility arouses great ambitions which are expressed in different forms and strategies. Asia and its manufacturers are therefore the most committed, concentrating all their efforts on hybridization and the hydrogen fuel cell.

In front of them, an America (except California) and especially a Europe which are slow to turn the page on thermal transport. The “old continent” moving without much conviction towards rechargeable battery electrics, to the detriment of investments in H2.

Asia is ahead and Europe is waking up

However, things have changed since the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017 and the creation of the “Hydrogen Council”. And this year in particular, wills to start the H2 market seem to be reborn among our industrialists and political leaders with more and more frequent announcements of new buses or utility vehicles in PAC which would demonstrate a renewed interest in the H2 sector.

Most manufacturers have also come together in partnerships to pool their investments (or to catch up by joining forces with Asian leaders): Ford-Daimler-Renault-Nissan, BMW-Toyota, Audi-Hyundaï-Kia, Ford -Toyota, Honda-Hyundaï-Kia, Hyundaï-Cummins, etc. And if the apparent absence of Volkswagen or Peugeot in this list may surprise, it should however be put into perspective.

The CEO of Peugeot now seems aware of the delay taken by Europe and requests the public authorities to increase the number of H2 distribution infrastructures. Until PSA engineering and Opel’s research center are able to offer (just like Renault) an offer of hybrid electric utility vehicles with “plug-in” battery and low-power auxiliary H2 fuel cell (therefore low additional cost). These “hydrogen micro-hybridization utilities” would above all serve to initiate the deployment of H2 production and distribution infrastructures to then make it possible to make a “general public” offer of 100% hydrogen electric transport more attractive.

Volkswagen does not display any positioning on fuel cells and does not offer any model. Yet behind the scenes, the VAG group is indeed positioning itself on hydrogen: Volkswagen of America and Stanford University developed at the end of 2018 a process for manufacturing PACs which considerably reduces spending on precious metal. For its part, Audi is a member of the Hydrogen Council as well as a partner of Hyundaï in order to share in the future all their patents, licenses and components of PAC.

All this indeed demonstrates great ambitions in hydrogen within the VAG group and the strategy of probably orienting their electromobility on 2 economic axes: batteries for city cars and compact entry-level Volkswagen, PACs for Audi premium sedans.

And then, when 400 H2 stations are announced in Germany over the next 3 years and the unstoppable Chancellor Merkel decides herself in favor of this sector, which European manufacturer could take the risk of not participating in this revolution?