Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) are similar to BEVs in that they have an electric-only powertrain, but they store energy differently. FCEVs store hydrogen gas in a tank rather than charging a battery. The fuel cell in FCEVs generates energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen from the air. The fuel cell’s electricity then powers an electric motor, which drives the vehicle like a BEV. Like BEVs, FCEVs’ exhaust produces no smog-forming or climate-changing emissions; the sole result is water. FCEVs, unlike BEVs and PHEVs, do not require charging because their fuel cells are refilled by filling up with hydrogen, which may be done in as little as 5 minutes at a filling station.
How Fuel Cells Work
The most common type of fuel cell for vehicle applications is the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. In a PEM fuel cell, an electrolyte membrane is sandwiched between a positive electrode (cathode) and a negative electrode (anode). Hydrogen is introduced to the anode, and oxygen (from air) is introduced to the cathode. The hydrogen molecules break apart into protons and electrons due to an electrochemical reaction in the fuel cell catalyst. Protons then travel through the membrane to the cathode. The electrons are forced to travel through an external circuit to perform work (providing power to the electric car) then recombine with the protons on the cathode side where the protons, electrons, and oxygen molecules combine to form water.
Defining Characteristics of an FCEV
In simple terms, unlike a BEV(Battery electric vehicle), which requires external charging, a fuel-cell electric vehicle generates its own electricity. This minimizes the battery capacity and as a result, the dead weight that an FCEV must carry is less than that of the BEVs. These days, battery-electric vehicles feature 30-50 kWh battery packs, allowing them to go around 400 kilometers on a single charge. In comparison, an FCEV with a battery pack of less than 2 kWh can drive up to 650 kilometers.
Furthermore, unlike the charge stored in a battery, which tends to deplete with time (hours-days), hydrogen, which is the primary source of power in an FCEV, can be stored for longer periods of time (days-seasons). Furthermore, refueling a hydrogen tank takes only 2-3 minutes, similar to filling a car with gasoline or diesel, as opposed to charging a BEV, which can take up to 30 minutes even with the most advanced technologies if linked to a fast charger.
Being said all these facts which make FCEVs clearly superior to BEVs why is it lagging behind?
Sweeter Yet a bit Bitter
The main advantage of an FCEV is the hydrogen fuel cell and the main disadvantage is also the hydrogen fuel cell… A bit confusing right?
You see, the high cost of hydrogen manufacturing, fuel-cell stacks, and the development of hydrogen fuel stations is some of the key hurdles facing FCEVs today. As is the case with most new technologies, the prices associated with them only decrease as technology advances and more people use them.
To put things in perspective, even in Germany, Europe’s hydrogen leader, just 82 hydrogen stations are operating. In comparison, there are 24,000 BEV charging stations, with 15% of those being rapid charging stations. According to Capgemini research, there are an estimated 144,000 charging points in Europe, but just 125 hydrogen stations are an even more striking indicator of how far BEV acceptance and investment has progressed. There is currently no hydrogen fuel station in India but countries such as Japan, China, the United States of America, Korea on the other hand, have begun to embrace the idea of a hydrogen-based society.
Aside from these, there’s the issue of safety, as hydrogen is very reactive in its pure state which demands advanced and expensive transportation and handling machinery.
BEVs Will Continue to Lead The Way
FCEVs will continue to be on automakers’ radars, but their business and product plans will be centered on BEVs. This is corroborated by BEV and FCEV sales data from around the world. Only roughly 335,000 BEVs were sold in 2015, but over 1,700,000 were sold in 2019 a 50% yearly growth rate. In comparison, only about 18,500 FCEVs were sold between 2015 and 2019.
This trend could be proven by an example. VW has stated its intention to bring 75 new BEV vehicles to market by 2029, but in order to do so, it will have to reduce its R&D spending in other sectors. VW has already discontinued sponsoring fuel cell research, assuming that mass production of fuel cell vehicles will be impossible in the next ten years. Other automakers, however, have not gone as far as VW. Companies like Audi and BMW for example, continue to build limited series or prototype FCEVs but, like VW the majority of their R&D budget is devoted to the resource judged most likely, namely the battery-powered electrification of their product line.
When the economics of BEV and FCEV infrastructures are compared, it’s easy to see why BEV investment has jumped so far ahead. At today’s prices, a single hydrogen station costs more than €1 million (US$1.1 million). According to Capgemini research, four 150KW charging stations can be erected for a total cost of €596,000. Apart from the huge cost differential, BEVs remains the natural choice since, unlike FCEVs, they can rely on existing power grids, but there are no hydrogen distribution networks that can support a large number of FCEVs on the road.
Certainly, in the future, FCEVs will have a place on the automotive landscape but right now and in the foreseeable future EVs will continue to dominate the sector.