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Electric Battery Vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cell

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Since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf (2010) and Tesla Model S (2012), battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have become the main focus of the automotive industry.

This structural change is moving at an incredible pace – in China, 3 million BEVs were sold in 2021, compared to 1 million the previous year. Meanwhile, in the United States, the number of models available for sale is expected to double by 2024.

However, to meet global climate goals, the International Energy Agency says the automotive industry will need 30 times more minerals per year. Many fear this will weigh on the supply.

“The data shows an impending disconnect between the world’s heightened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals.”
– Fatih Birol, AIE

Fortunately, BEVs are not the only solution to decarbonize transport. In this infographic, we explain how the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) works.

How does the hydrogen fuel cell work?

FCEVs are a type of electric vehicle that produce zero emissions (apart from the environmental cost of production). The main difference is that BEVs contain a large battery to store electricity, while FCEVs create their own electricity using a hydrogen fuel cell.

Main BEV components Main Components of FCEV
Battery Battery
On-board charger Hydrogen tank
electric motor Fuel cell
electric motor
Exhaust

Let’s review the functions of the main components of the FCEV.

Battery

The first is the lithium-ion battery, which stores electricity to power the electric motor. In an FCEV, the battery is smaller because it is not the primary power source. For general context, the Model S Plaid contains 7,920 lithium-ion cells, while the Toyota Mirai FCEV contains 330.

Hydrogen fuel tank

FCEVs have a fuel tank that stores hydrogen in its gaseous form. Liquid hydrogen cannot be used because it requires cryogenic temperatures (−150°C or −238°F). Hydrogen gas, along with oxygen, are the two inputs to the hydrogen fuel cell.

Fuel cell and motor

The fuel cell uses hydrogen gas to generate electricity. To explain the process in simple terms, hydrogen gas passes through the cell and is split into protons (H+) and electrons (e-).

The protons pass through the electrolyte, which is a liquid or gel material. Electrons are unable to pass through the electrolyte, so they take an external path instead. This creates an electric current to power the motor.

Exhaust

At the end of the fuel cell process, electrons and protons meet and combine with oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction that produces water (H2O), which is then emitted from the tailpipe.

Which technology wins?

As you can see from the chart below, most automakers have turned to BEVs. In particular, the BEV group lacks Toyotathe largest automaker in the world.

Hydrogen fuel cells have drawn criticism from notable industry figures, including Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk and CEO of Volkswagen Herbert Diess.

Green hydrogen is needed for steel, chemicals, aero,… and shouldn’t end up in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow and difficult to deploy and transport.
– Herbert Diess, CEO, Volkswagen Group

Toyota and Hyundai are on the opposite side as both companies continue to invest in fuel cell development. The difference between them, however, is that Hyundai (and sister brand Kia) has released several BEVs yet.

It’s a surprising mistake for Toyota, which pioneered hybrid vehicles like the Prius. It is reasonable to think that after this success, BEVs would be a natural next step. As Wired reports, Toyota placed all of its chips on hydrogen development, ignoring the fact that much of the industry was moving in a different way. Realizing its mistake and needing to buy time, the company resorted to lobbying versus adoption of electric vehicles.

Faced with a losing hand, Toyota does what most big companies do when they find themselves playing the wrong game: fight to change the game.
– Wired

Toyota is expected to launch its first BEV, the bZ4X crossover, for the 2023 model year, more than a decade since Tesla launched the Model S.

The Challenges of Fuel Cell Adoption

There are several challenges to the widespread adoption of FCEV.

One is in-car performance, although the difference is minor. In terms of maximum range, the best FCEV (Toyota Mirai) was EPA rated for 402 mileswhile the best BEV (Lucid Air) received 505 miles.

Two bigger issues are 1) the hydrogen efficiency issue and 2) a very limited number of refueling stations. According to the US Department of Energy, there are only 48 hydrogen stations throughout the country, with 47 located in California, and 1 located in Hawaii.

On the contrary, BEVs have 49,210 charging stations throughout the country and can also be charged at home. That number is sure to grow, as the Biden administration has allocated $5 billion states to expand their charging networks.

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