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Energy intensive, too expensive? The long road to the hydrogen car

origin 1Electric vehicles will dominate the automotive market in the near future, everyone in the industry agrees on that. While hydrogen production is very expensive and energy intensive, some automakers believe there is still a niche for fuel cell-powered cars. Sebastian Gollnow/dpa

The electric mobility revolution is in full swing, but there is another way to power cars besides fossil fuels or electric batteries: hydrogen.

While some manufacturers like Audi and Mercedes are fully focused on going electric, other automakers are also investing in hydrogen fuel cell technology as it has some clear advantages. However, experts are skeptical that the trend will really take off.

Toyota and Hyundai are already well ahead in the field and German automaker BMW will soon be launching a small series of a new vehicle, the iX5 Hydrogen, trying to gain experience with the technology and keeping open the possibility of selling such cars in high numbers a day .

“We are already thinking about a possible next generation,” said BMW managing director Oliver Zipse.

China, meanwhile, wants to have 1 million hydrogen cars on the road by 2030, and Japan and South Korea also see potential in the technology.

An alternative to battery power

BMW plans to sell half of its battery-powered cars by 2030 but given the scarcity of crucial raw materials needed for electric mobility and the still low number of public charging stations at the moment, the auto giant doesn’t want to put all of its eggs in a basket.

Hydrogen is “the missing piece of the puzzle that can complement electric mobility where battery-electric units won’t prevail,” according to Zipse.

Toyota is supplying BMW with fuel cells for the iX5 Hydrogen. The series will consist of less than 100 vehicles that will be tested by drivers in daily use in Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea and China.

However, German industry expert Stefan Bratzel is skeptical of hydrogen-powered cars, saying a rapid ramp-up of the technology isn’t feasible.

“We’re talking about long periods of time. That won’t help us get over the hurdles over the next few years,” says the head of the CAM-Autoinstitut in Germany, adding that the technology “is an expensive business.”

Hydrogen generated from wind and solar energy can be burned directly in a petrol engine. Porsche, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Kawasaki and Yamaha are already working on it.

Alternatively, a fuel cell in the car can generate electricity from hydrogen which is then used to power an electric motor. The Asian automakers Toyota and Hyundai are already selling such vehicles, and the Chinese manufacturer Changan has just started series production.

Hydrogen needs a lot of energy

For Bratzel, the strongest argument against hydrogen cars is “the high energy input required to produce hydrogen.” In the transition from electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity, much of the energy is lost, he says.

It’s true that hydrogen is suitable as a storage medium for excess electricity and can even be transported long distances, says Bratzel. “That’s obviously an advantage, but you also have to keep an eye on costs.”

Another argument against hydrogen is the cost of building the necessary infrastructure. In Germany, for example, there are currently only about 100 hydrogen filling stations. If cars were to refuel with hydrogen, the network would have to become much more dense.

Even for the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative led by the CEOs of over 100 large energy, transport, industrial and investment companies, the battery electric car is still the way forward, crucial for decarbonization and a mainstream solution to move away from fossil fuel-powered automobiles.

However, if 10% of the car parc were to run on hydrogen, this would reduce demand on the electricity grid, savings that would offset the cost of hydrogen fueling stations, according to the initiative.

For drivers, a hydrogen vehicle offers benefits they already know from gasoline and diesel cars, Zipse said, namely fast refueling and long range.

Former VW CEO Herbert Diess once called hydrogen the champagne of the energy transition. Just as with the expensive bubbly, Zipse is “convinced that there is a market for fuel cell cars in Europe even in the premium segment”.

Still, electric cars with batteries are likely to remain the cheaper option when it comes to small- and mid-size cars versus fuel cells, Bratzel says.

origin 1BMW employees assemble components during the production of fuel cell systems for the hydrogen-powered BMW iX5 Hydrogen at a plant in Munich. Tom Kirkpatrick/BMW AG/dpa