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Hydrogen propulsion is considered the next big thing in mobility. In fact, this technology has matured much more than many believe. However, a few more details are needed for the final breakthrough. Plus the necessary infrastructure.
To be sure: With precisely five filling stations in all of Austria, a hydrogen-powered car is not a very viable solution at the moment. This in addition to the very basic restriction that there are hardly any series production models for potential hydrogen fans to choose from – in contrast to the ever-broadening range of e-vehicles the purchase of which is increasingly subsidized.
And still, it is obvious that in the long run, we won’t be able to achieve a full mobility turnaround without hydrogen drives. This is because the hydrogen fuel cell has the potential of achieving distances that are not possible with batteries, especially in heavy goods transport. For an e-truck to have a range of 800 km, its battery would have to weigh about 7.5 tons. And the vehicle operator would still have the disadvantage of having to schedule regular downtimes for recharging.
A fuel cell, on the other hand, which drives the motor by converting onboard hydrogen to electricity, has no weight or downtime problems. And by now, the technology has become very reliable. The first operational hydrogen fuel cell cars were built more than a quarter century ago, the first hydrogen reactor even in the late fifties.
As Helmut List, CEO of motor developer AVL in Graz, points out, hydrogen cars would not be more expensive than vehicles with conventional drives when produced in series: “In principle, there is nothing about the fuel cell that has to be expensive. We have shown in a current project that the cost of the powertrain can be significantly reduced even today. When produced in larger quantities, this will be true even more so.”
AVL has also proven that battery and fuel cell drives don’t have to be irreconcilable opposites, but can work as hybrids, especially in passenger cars. Just recently, the company presented a prototype where both a fuel cell and a classic e-car battery are installed. In three to four years, such a model could be ready for production combining the best of both worlds.
Expensive hydrogen production
Andreas Renschler, CEO of the Traton Group, also confirms that the major technical obstacles in the development of hydrogen cars have been overcome: “The biggest challenge posed by the fuel cell is not the technology, but - due to high energy losses in production - the price of hydrogen.”
Estimating the actual production costs for hydrogen is complicated by the fact that there is not yet a really functioning market for it in Europe. Calculations are therefore based on hypothetical approximate values such as an assumed price of nine euros for a kilogram of hydrogen. Even with this assumption - as advocates of hydrogen propulsion point out - the operating costs of a hydrogen car are barely higher than those of a conventional car. Moreover, a significantly lower price of about four to six euros per kilogram could be expected going forward when hydrogen will be mass-produced. In that case, fuel-cell cars would be significantly cheaper to operate than gasoline-driven or Diesel vehicles, even at current low oil prices.
The main ecological advantage of hydrogen is the fact that it burns without residue and can be generated without the help of fossil energy sources, for instance, by using sun, wind or water power for electrolysis. However, if hydrogen is subsequently transported to the filling station and temporarily stored there, the system efficiency will suffer not only from the conversion losses during production, but also from the considerable cost of cooling or compressing the hydrogen. To avoid at least some of this, one option would be to have the electrolysis of hydrogen take place directly at the filling station, which would, however, require additional investments in the infrastructure.
A few general observations: Without extensive investments in a supply network for future hydrogen users, the current highly optimistic forecast of the Hydrogen Council is unlikely to become a reality. This forecast anticipates 15 million cars and 500,000 trucks powered by hydrogen by 2030. You don’t notice much of that in Austria yet. According to Statistik Austria, just 41 hydrogen cars were registered in Austria at the end of 2019; still, compared to 2018, this was an increase of about 70 percent.
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