When it comes to zero emission vehicles, there is a tendency to view electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered vehicles as competing technologies. However, leaders in the field suggest that perhaps we should see them more as partners instead of rivals.
How They Work
A hydrogen fuel cell car (also known as FCV’s) has a tank that feeds on a fuel cell with high pressured hydrogen gas that’ll mix with oxygen. This mix starts an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity to power the motor. This means hydrogen cars have characteristics of both electric cars (motor and electric energy) and petrochemical cars (tanks) .
Electric vehicles (also called EV’s) are powered by electric motors that pull current from a rechargeable battery or other portable sources of electricity . They function by plugging into a charging point and taking electricity from the grid when the portable source depletes.
Let’s take a look at a couple of different areas of comparison to see where these two sources of power could collaborate.
Availability of Resources
Both the Electric Vehicle battery and the hydrogen extraction process require a large amount of energy from power stations to create the resources needed to sustain hydrogen vehicle fuel or electricity for the electric vehicle battery. Despite hydrogen being one of the most abundant elements in the atmosphere, to access it in its purest form requires a costly process.
This leaves them both fairly comparable when it comes to the availability of the materials.
Transport and Efficiency
It is tricky to report the driving range of each of these cars, as a lot of things can contribute to differing experiences, including the number of passengers, whether air conditioning is on, etc. Hydrogen cars densely pack their energy storage, which allows them to, on average, achieve longer distances. A comparison: while most electric vehicles can travel between 100-200 miles on a single charge, hydrogen ones can get to 300 miles . Hydrogen wins this one!
In addition to range, refueling opportunities are important. The number of Electric Vehicle charging stations is growing every day in the United States, with a recent number of stations being recorded as 20,000. Hydrogen refueling stations, by comparison, have only about 45 in the entire country. Electric vehicles win when it comes to the availability of charging, however when it comes to refueling duration, hydrogen takes the cake as most EV charging stations take anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours to fully recharge. The hydrogen car refill experience is very similar to the regular petrol/diesel experience.
Blue hydrogen technologies are almost 100% recyclable and are much easier to handle at end-of-life than batteries, for which significant sustainability concerns exist.
Batteries need rare minerals (cobalt, lithium). This type of production leaves large craters in the earth and degrades the environment. To produce lithium, the groundwater, rich in minerals, is pumped into massive artificially created basins for targeted evaporation. The extraction of the groundwater causes the water level to drop and dries up the riverbeds and surrounding farms and wetlands. Farm and grazing lands are lost, rare bird species threatened and mangroves that characterise this ecosystem are drastically altered. The local, mostly indigenous population suffers from degradation, loss of land and lack of water .
However, there are several recycling technologies for used batteries of electric vehicles being developed and fine-tuned. One possibility is to shred the vehicle battery into small pieces with subsequent treatment in acid baths, where the resulting oxides and salts can be used to build new batteries. Cobalt and nickel form an alloy that can be reused. There is still a lot of research necessary in order to have a sustainable treatment of used car batteries .
A Path Forward
Ideally, the combustion engine will be changed to a hydrogen and/or battery-operated one. As well, the potential of a hydrogen economy to fuel the power grid, helping to produce and sustain an electric economy as well would be an incredible way to marry the two as we learn more about the impacts of each.
Looking for further reading about hydrogen? Check out the following articles on the CNZ insight page: Is hydrogen worth the hype? (February 2, 2021) | Are we at the cusp of a green hydrogen energy transformation? (March 10, 2021)