12. April 2022 By Julius Glaser, Zoe Holdt and Ellen Szczepaniak
Hydrogen – the fuel of the future?
Rising fuel prices and high energy costs have been a main topic of conversation for weeks now. Politicians are responding with relief packages to reduce petrol costs and ease the burden placed on their citizens. But what would it be like if our fuel didn’t cost several euros per litre, but instead, maybe only 95 cents? And what if this fuel already existed? Today, we’ll introduce you to hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Let’s take a closer look: what distinguishes a hydrogen-powered vehicle from other vehicles?
A hydrogen car is an electric vehicle powered by electricity that’s generated using a fuel cell. The car’s fuel tank contains hydrogen gas, which reacts with oxygen from the air in the fuel cell. The induced electrolysis produces electrical energy that powers the motor. Instead of environmentally harmful exhaust gases, only water vapour leaves the exhaust. Hydrogen cars are characterised by short refuelling times, long driving ranges and powerful acceleration. You can fill up the fuel tank in less than five minutes and drive up to 650 kilometres on it. Hydrogen is available at special fuel pumps, which are currently available at about 160 German petrol stations.
There are more and more e-cars on German roads these days whose batteries are not fed by a fuel cell. Instead, their batteries are charged at charging stations or charging points.
According to recent figures, there were 365,000 fully electric vehicles and just under 350,000 plug-in hybrids on German roads in 2021. This corresponds to a share of merely 1.22 per cent of all cars registered in Germany. In contrast, only 507 hydrogen cars are registered in Germany – a total of 0.001 per cent of all cars on the road there.
The demand for electromobility is increasing, companies are integrating electromobility into fleet management, delivery services are switching to electric-powered fleets and even in city traffic it is hard to imagine life without electric vehicles. Charging is done privately (at home or at work), at semi-public charging stations (for example, at the supermarket, shopping centre or in a multi-storey car park) and at publicly accessible charging points that can be found everywhere in cities these days.
And even though the electric car is still widely perceived as only being suitable for city traffic due to long charging times and short driving ranges, new models can already just about keep up with their petrol-fuelled counterparts: there are different driving ranges according to the type of vehicle and battery and depending on the charging plug and type of charging station. Current models travel over 400 kilometres on a single charge and, when using an AC charger under good conditions, are fully charged within three hours. In some cases, a charge of 80 per cent can even be reached within ten minutes by using a DC charger.
How expensive is hydrogen compared to petrol or electricity?
The price for one kilogram of hydrogen at all public H2 filling stations in Germany is €9.50 gross. A fuel cell vehicle consumes about one kilogram of hydrogen per 100 kilometres; so if our car regularly consumes 10 litres per 100 kilometres, then one litre of hydrogen costs us a mere €0.95. At an average electricity price of €0.30 per kilowatt hour, a common electric car consumes about 15 kilowatt hours every 100 kilometres. A comparable petrol model, on the other hand, consumes/needs 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres, with an average petrol price of around €1.30 in Germany.
But why has hydrogen not been able to establish itself as a fuel yet?
An important point is availability. To successfully penetrate the market, an infrastructure is needed, especially filling stations, so that customers begin to buy and use hydrogen vehicles. This infrastructure isn’t sufficiently available in Germany yet. For comparison, in Germany there are currently over 29,000 public and semi-public charging stations with just under 57,000 charging points, and this figure is set to increase in future.
The question of cost also plays a major role: producing a small number of units is expensive, and manufacturing prototypes and single units is usually unaffordable. Mass production is the only way to lower manufacturing costs and make the vehicles affordable and consequently competitive. While batteries for electric cars can already be produced cheaply, there’s still a need to play catch up when it comes to the heart of the hydrogen car: the fuel cell. Research into processes and materials for making fuel cells suitable for mass production is continuing at the moment – in Germany as well. They have to work as efficiently as possible and, at the same time, be cost-effective to produce. To reconcile this, different combinations of materials have to be tested and measured and characterised on the test bench.
One thing is certain
Electrically powered vehicles are the environmentally friendly alternative to conventional combustion engines. However, this only moves us closer to carbon neutrality if the vehicle is produced sustainably and the hydrogen is obtained using renewable energies. The hydrogen mentioned here includes any ‘green’ hydrogen, the import and production of which is the central goal of German energy and environmental policy.
The most important factor for determining whether an electric car can be considered climate-friendly or even climate-neutral, regardless of whether it’s powered by a fuel cell or a battery, is the electricity mix used in its manufacture. Therefore, our task is and remains to continue to consistently drive the energy transition forward and to make supply chains ‘greener’.