While electric cars are on the verge of a major breakthrough, hydrogen-powered cars are not so much in the limelight. At the beginning of the year, there were fewer than a hundred H2 cars on the roads in Switzerland, including 27 Toyota Mirai and 58 Hyundai Nexos. There are currently only nine hydrogen filling stations on the east-west transportation axis. But let’s start with the basics:
Hydrogen-powered cars are often referred to as “fuel cell cars”: electricity is generated in millimetre-thin cells when hydrogen (carried in gaseous form in 700-bar pressure tanks) is combined with oxygen. The electricity generated powers an electric motor – just as in an electric car. A large battery is not required and the only waste gas produced is water vapour.
Hydrogen is produced by means of water electrolysis. This process involves splitting water into its component parts of oxygen and hydrogen using electricity. When considering the environmental friendliness of H2 cars, the crucial question is how the electricity required for electrolysis is produced – by means of fossil energy or renewable energy? Only “green hydrogen” can power fuel cell vehicles without producing CO2 and therefore sustainably.
Hydrogen offers an impressively high level of energy density: as compared to batteries, more energy can be stored in H2 at the same weight. This is why hydrogen is very suitable for mobile storage of large amounts of energy, for instance when it comes to long-distance travel in lorries or ships. Refuelling takes just a few minutes – a little longer than in the case of petrol or diesel, but significantly faster than for an e-car. And prices at the filling station are no higher than for conventional fuels.
Now you might be thinking: there must be a catch somewhere. And of course you’re right! Let’s take a look at the prices. An H2 car currently costs between 60’000 and 90’000 Swiss francs, while an e-car is available from 19’000 Swiss francs according to the TCS guidebook; a total of ten vehicles are available on the Swiss market for less than 35’000 Swiss francs. Filling stations are very costly: construction of an H2 filling station is estimated to cost between 1 and 1.5 million Swiss francs.
The high-pressure tanks are a particular cost factor here, as is storage of the H2 at up to 1’000 bar and the special compressors that generate this enormous pressure. 1’000 bar is the pressure at an ocean depth of 10’000 metres, or 500 times the pressure in a car tyre. The pumps are also quite expensive, as is the pre-cooling unit that ensures the hydrogen does not heat up excessively and the car can be refuelled within minutes. By contrast, the price of building a public AC charging station is in the four-digit to low five-digit range – a completely different world. The cost of a DC fast-charging station is somewhere in the six-digit range.
It’s not only money that stands in the way of H2 cars – there are other factors, too. Sustainability, for instance: If you consider the entire “well to wheel” chain of effects – from the generation and provision of propulsion energy to its conversion into kinetic energy – hydrogen vehicles do significantly less well than e-cars. This is because H2 generation uses electricity and then it is converted into electricity again – so there are two processes that are detrimental to efficiency. A second factor that slows down hydrogen technology lies in the fact that car manufacturers are focused entirely on electromobility so as to massively accelerate progress in e-technology innovation. Thirdly, there is a persistent fear of explosion – even though hydrogen experts do not see any greater risk. After all: hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, so it is extremely volatile. Dangerous accumulations of gas cannot form.
The association H2 Mobilität Schweiz founded in 2018 aims to improve the unsatisfactory situation regarding the limited network of filling stations. It brings together experts from companies and research institutions from all areas of hydrogen technology for this purpose. As the number of filling stations increases, the cost of elaborate components such as compressors, pressure tanks, etc. will decrease, too.
In addition, fuel cell production must be further advanced and made cheaper. Tyre manufacturer Michelin and automotive supplier Faurecia have collaborated on this for 15 years and are due to start building a fuel cell factory in Lyon before the end of 2021. The production plant will be one of the largest in Europe. In four years’ time, 20’000 cell systems are to be produced per year, and there are plans to produce more than 200’000 units by the end of the decade. “In 2030, manufacturing costs will be only one tenth of today’s,” Anish Taneja, President of Michelin’s Northern Europe region, is quoted as saying on faz.net. There is general agreement among experts that, at six-figure quantities or more, it will be possible to produce a fuel cell vehicle at a cost similar to that of a battery-powered electric car.
Mobility is switching entirely to electromobility by 2030 at the latest. “Hydrogen is interesting because of its high energy density,” says Mobility fleet manager Viktor Wyler. “However, the prices, the above-mentioned small filling station network and developments in the market are all arguments against a current use of this technology for the purpose of car sharing”. In addition, the technology is only of interest to Mobility if it has the potential to be completely renewable. Wyler explains that this is not the case right now. “We're waiting to see what direction the technology will take.”