Battery Electric Vehicles vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

With each passing day, the threat of climate change becomes grimmer, lending even greater urgency to the need to embrace clean energy. Climate change is manifesting itself in several ways, such as rising temperatures and the growing intensity of storms.

The primary factor impacting climate change is emissions of greenhouse gases, the major share of which belongs to carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide is released with the burning of fossil fuels, such as crude oil, coal and natural gas, contributing to the greenhouse effect. Nevertheless, fossil fuels are the source of over 80 percent of  the global energy supply.

According to EPA, transportation and electricity, with a share of 28 percent each, are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. This is because fossil fuels are used both to power vehicles and to produce electricity. More than 90 percent of fuel used in transportation comes from gasoline and diesel, both of which are derivatives of crude oil.

As part of a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the auto industry has started transitioning to clean fuels. Battery-electric vehicles are undergoing rapid market adoption, and millions of dollars are being spent on deploying infrastructures for large-scale introduction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Both fuel cells and batteries generate electricity, but they operate quite differently. The chemical energy in a battery comes from substances within the battery itself. The life of a battery is limited, and batteries undergo degradation over time. Lithium-ion batteries have a rated lifetime in the range of 500 charge cycles to 1,500 charge cycles.

Fuel cells can operate indefinitely, but to produce electricity they need to be fed with hydrogen (from tanks) and oxygen (usually from air). Unlike batteries, the power levels and performance of fuel cells do not degrade over time.

As batteries approach their end of life, they need to be properly recycled. If not handled appropriately, lithium-ion batteries could release dangerous toxins. With fuel cells, the environmental costs for disposing off batteries are eliminated.

Compared to batteries, fuel cells offer greater range to vehicles, while being lighter and less voluminous. Unlike battery-electric vehicles whose range is essentially a function of battery size, fuel cell vehicles are ideal for medium-distance and long-distance travel.

The range of a fuel cell vehicle primarily depends on the fueling pressure. The higher the pressure, the more the range. At present, the pressures employed in fuel cell vehicles are 70 MPa (mainly for light-duty vehicles) and 35 MPa (mainly for heavy-duty vehicles). Japan is the first country to have discontinued 35 MPa fueling. All Japanese hydrogen stations currently support 70 MPa (and the majority also support 82 MPa).

For a fuel cell vehicle, the extra weight needed to increase the driving range is negligible. For a battery electric vehicle, on the other hand, the weight grows dramatically (because of heavier batteries) even with small increases in the driving range. The weight of battery-electric vehicles produces driving challenges relating to acceleration, braking and maneuverability. To cope with these issues, battery-electric vehicles need heavier brakes and larger traction motors.

Currently, battery electric vehicles have the momentum, with China emerging as the biggest market for these vehicles. At the same time, the build-out of hydrogen stations is gathering steam, and several regions of the world are being blanketed with hydrogen fueling infrastructures.

Virtually every major manufacturer is positioning itself to be a player in the burgeoning battery-electric vehicle market. In the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market, three major vendors – Toyota, Honda and Hyundai – have rolled out automobiles, and several other automakers are poised to make inroads in this space.

Both battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will continue to co-exist. At the same time, significant growth will occur in vehicles that are the hybrid of both battery and fuel cell technologies.

Blogger: Naqi Jaffery

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