larry fisher, a former New York Times reporter, writes about business, technology and design.
Published October 2, 2020
In the Internet forums devoted to electric vehicles, participants seem to reserve their greatest vitriol not for Big Oil, gas-guzzling SUVs or even climate change, but for hydrogen fuel cell cars. This is curious because fuel cell cars are electric vehicles, too — “FCEVs” as opposed to “BEVs” for battery-powered cars. Is it because the great and powerful Elon Musk has deemed the former “fool cells”? Or is it because BEV enthusiasts see the comparison as a giant zero-sum game, wherein any competition for their beloved Teslas, Leafs and Bolts is an existential threat?
Rest easy, Tesla groupies. In reality, FCEVs are as likely to complement BEVs as displace them. Laptop computers and smartphones drove down the cost of lithium-ion batteries, giving BEVs a head start in the market, though their share of vehicles on the road is still less than 2 percent. Fuel cell technology is more complicated and has taken longer to develop, but FCEVs have some advantages over BEVs — most notably, fast refueling and lighter weight.
They still may not win in the marketplace. After all, VHS triumphed over Betamax in the videotape format war, despite Betamax’s better picture quality, because VHS’s initial lead in providing movies made it a better consumer experience.
But this is not VHS–Betamax redux because some of the world’s largest, and arguably smartest, automakers remain committed to FCEVs — among them, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler Benz and Jaguar-Land Rover. Strikingly Toyota and Honda sell no BEVs in the United States, so they are betting heavily that hydrogen will succeed. And a host of companies are rolling out FCEV trucks, trains and ships, and maybe even aircraft. “Hydrogen is one of the most promising technologies available to help us reach zero-emission flights by 2035,” explained Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury when the European Commission rolled out its Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap on July 8.
Hydrogen has been at a disadvantage as a hedge against climate change because most of it is still produced from natural gas, releasing lots of CO2 in the process. But the rapid growth of wind, solar and hydroelectricity has made “green hydrogen” possible, produced by separating the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atoms in water via electrolysis. If the energy source used is renewable, no net CO2 is emitted in the process. Green hydrogen is most advanced in places with strong carbon emissions restrictions like Germany, Norway and Denmark, but it is being pursued by countries from India to Iran that are anticipating carbon restrictions.
Storage and distribution of hydrogen have also been hurdles to its mass acceptance, as it must either be pressurized or liquified to be transported in tanks — in both cases, using energy to compress the light gas. Moreover, H2 under pressure tends to damage the walls and joints of piping, and thus is not entirely compatible with existing pipelines designed to transport natural gas. But increased efficiency means that the manufacturers of electrolyzers (the machines that divide H2O by electrolysis), can now supply units small enough to be placed at individual filling stations or at the point of use — any place with water and a source of electricity and water. And though fresh water is a scarce resource in many locations, not to worry: GeoPura, a Nottinghamshire-based startup, already has a facility in the United Kingdom that is making hydrogen from sea water.
“We’re trying to get a mass of hydrogen that makes a difference,” said Andrew Cunningham, GeoPura’s chief executive, who says the company will place its operations at the point of use, whether a filling station, a steel mill or a construction site. “You can only go so far with compression or liquefaction.”
There are also markets for hydrogen that do not require ubiquitous refueling opportunities — think city buses that can go back to the garage at night for a refill. Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia says that its hydrogen fuel cells have already powered commercial heavy- and medium-duty buses and trucks for more than 50 million kilometers worldwide.
Moreover, hydrogen advocates are thinking beyond transportation. The Iron Mains Risk Replacement Program is replacing old iron natural gas pipelines in Britain’s low-pressure networks with hydrogen and biomethane-ready piping made from plastic. Between 2014 and 2032, the UK is planning to invest £28 billion (currently, about $37 billion) in creating a hydrogen-ready gas grid in towns, villages and communities across the country.
“I think the future of hydrogen will be driven by the demand side backwards, not a huge flow of hydrogen into the market,” said Vegard Frihamer, an executive with Greenstat, a Norway-based operator of hydrogen production plants. “It will be fleet-based: think Walmart’s forklifts and trucks. The first hydrogen ferry in Norway comes into operation in 2021, and that creates a demand that is big enough for investment,” he said. “Maritime is extremely important.”
GeoPura, partnering with Siemans, has started installing industrial-scale electrolyzers at thousands of renewable energy sites, both solar and wind, across the globe. Each site will effectively use renewable energy to convert two liters of water into hydrogen fuel every minute of every day (equivalent to a liter of gasoline) without any harmful emissons.
Trains, Planes and Ships
Honda’s FCX Clarity, the first hydrogen car offered to the U.S. public, was produced from 2008 until 2014. Toyota introduced the Mirai in 2015, while Hyundai produced an FCEV version of its Tucson crossover and Honda followed with an updated Clarity in 2016. Hyundai’s Nexo, the Korean automaker's first purpose-built FCEV, debuted in 2018. It has become the best-selling fuel cell car — well, really it’s an SUV — to date, recently passing the 10,000 unit mark, which the Mirai hit in 2019.
Those numbers sound tepid, especially considering the generous lease terms and free hydrogen for 15,000 miles provided to early adopters, but it is best to consider the FCEV rollouts to date as a public beta test. While the cars themselves are ready for prime time, earning excellent reviews in all the usual places, they have only been on sale in a handful of localities: California and Hawaii in the United States, South Korea, Germany, the UK and the Nordic countries. Refueling infrastructure has been thin on the ground, but that is changing. With more than 40 retail hydrogen stations across California, it is now possible to drive the length and width of the state, never out of range of a fill-up.
Slow sales of the first Mirai might have stemmed from its appearance, which Car and Driver magazine described as “spectacularly ugly.” Toyota must have listened, because the new model, available later this year, is sleek. It has a 400-mile range between fill-ups, and Toyota's chief technology officer says the Mirai can run on the hydrogen sourced fromone cow’s poop. He’s not joking: Toyota and Shell have a joint venture in Long Beach, California, that captures methane gas from cattle manure and converts it into water, electricity and hydrogen.
Hyundai says it will produce 700,000 fuel cells by 2030, with 500,000 for passenger vehicles and 200,000 for pilotless aircraft, locomotives and ships. The company has begun shipping 10 FCEV semi-trailer trucks per month to Germany and expects to have sold 1,600 by 2025, according to Saehoon Kim, head of the company’s fuel cell group. He notes that the manufacturing cost of the Nexo is half that of its predecessor and that its successor, due in 2025, will be half as costly again. “I think we will get there much faster than expected,” he told Bloomberg TV.
Ford and General Motors have been notably quiet about FCEVs. But the diesel giant Cummins already has more than 2,000 fuel cells and 600 electrolyzers in use. The Nikola Corporation, a Phoenix-based startup doing both FCEVs and BEVs, has said its Nikola One semi-truck will have a range of 500 to 750 miles with a 10- to 15-minute fill-up time.
Coradia iLint, the first hydrogen-powered train, is already in passenger service between the towns of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehudehe in Germany. In 2022, 14 Coradia iLint trains will replace existing diesel units. Alstom, the giant railroad rolling stock manufacturer, recently announced plans to build a similar train for service in Italy. HydroFLEX, the UK’s first full-sized hydrogen demonstration train, is powered by Ballard fuel cells and is now ready for network testing on the mainline railway.
All that said, most of the action is in road vehicles. BMW has said it will show its first hydrogen SUV, co-developed with Toyota, in 2022, while Audi is collaborating with Hyundai. Daimler Benz recently delivered the first Mercedes GLC F-CELL vehicles to selected customers in the German market. The Mercedes features both fuel cells and a battery that can be charged using plug-in technology. And Jaguar-Land Rover, which already sells the Jaguar i-Pace EV, has indicated it will do a fuel cell version of the Range Rover.
A “hydrogen-powered Range Rover is a no-brainer,” opined Steve Cropley, of Autocar magazine. “You only have to drive a few miles in a Toyota Mirai, and to refuel it at one of Europe’s slowly growing collection of hydrogen stations, to see that managing a hydrogen fuel cell EV is easier than a battery EV and always will be from an owner’s point of view.”
That’s because refueling an FCEV takes about five minutes, compared with an hour for an 80 percent charge at one of Tesla’s Superchargers (assuming you don’t have to wait in line). There is also a significant weight advantage: the three tanks in the current Mirai weigh 192 pounds and offer a range of 312 miles from 11 pounds of hydrogen gas. The battery assembly in a Tesla Model S Long Range weighs about 1,190 pounds and achieves a similar range. The difference is reflected in the two cars’ total weights: 4,075 pounds for the 2020 Mirai versus 4,960 for the Tesla.
While the Tesla offers sparkling performance despite its weight, lugging a half-ton of lithium around makes little sense for larger vehicles like trucks and buses. And, while there are some small electric aircraft in development with the aim of offering commuter flights, a battery-powered airliner is not likely to get off the ground.
Selling the Sizzle, Making the Steak
In August, Hyperion, a southern California–based startup, unveiled a new hydrogen fuel cell supercar. The company claims a 0-60 time of 2.2 seconds, a top speed of 220 miles per hour, and a 1,000-mile range between fill-ups. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, and only 300 XP-1s will be built. More to the point, Hyperion is also committing to building its own fueling stations to address the lack of hydrogen infrastructure in the U.S., just as Tesla did with its network of Superchargers.
“We’re an energy company that’s building this car to tell a story,” Angelo Kafantaris, Hyperion’s chief executive, said at the press launch.
In other words, the hypercar is the sizzle, the hydrogen infrastructure is the steak. That’s why Nikola recently ordered enough electrolysis equipment from Nel ASA, of Oslo, to produce 40,000 kilograms of hydrogen per day. With typical tech startup understatement, Nikola says it is building the largest hydrogen network in the world, which will cover multiple states and trucking routes. Nikola, notably, has not made or sold a single vehicle yet, but investors have pushed its market capitalization to almost $15 billion since April!
More quietly, GeoPura, partnering with Siemans, has started installing industrial-scale electrolyzers at thousands of renewable energy sites, both solar and wind, across the globe. Each site will effectively use renewable energy to convert two liters of water into hydrogen fuel every minute of every day (equivalent to a liter of gasoline) without any harmful emissons. Indeed, the only exhaust gas is pure water vapor.
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It was easy to write off Elon Musk as a dreamer. Now e-transportation is commonplace, and the stock market puts the value of Tesla at $400 billion. No single company has a head start in hydrogen the way Tesla did in lithium battery technology. But the incredible range of commitment that covers the waterfront of major car companies (except Tesla), not to mention a dozen well-funded gung-ho startups, strongly suggests that the green hydrogen era is nearly upon us. All praise the technology gods: with climate change closing in, we’ll need all the help we can get.