Are hydrogen cars already an alternative to internal combustion engines? Is the question really "hydrogen cars or electric cars?" Or are cars with fuel cells just part of the future? We talked about the opportunities for hydrogen vehicles with two fuel cell experts who shared their expertise with us and discussed the pros and cons of fuel cell vehicles. Karl Lötsch from HZwo and Michael Otto from SachsenNetze HS.HD GmbH.
In addition, Carsten Wald, head of the Infrastructure Service department at SachsenNetze, dared to test for us how well a hydrogen car works in everyday life. At the end of the article he reports in a video about his experienceshow well his business trip from Dresden to Leipzig and back worked out and what advantages and disadvantages he sees for fuel cell cars.
Table of contents
How does a hydrogen car work?
Hydrogen cars are also electric cars: The drive system works the same for both alternatives. The difference is the energy storage: While electric cars usually mean BEV's, i.e. battery electric vehicles, the energy in the H2 car is stored in a fuel cell in the form of pure hydrogen. When the hydrogen (chemical symbol "H") comes into contact with the oxygen ("O") in the fuel cell, the elements react with each other to produce electrical energy for propulsion. This chemical reaction produces water ("H2O"), which escapes completely harmlessly as "exhaust gas".
What hydrogen cars are currently available?
If you are currently looking for a hydrogen car, there are really only two models on the market: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. In addition to these, there is also a concept vehicle, the BMW iX5 HYDROGEN, which is not yet freely available on the market. The Toyota Mirai has even been available in its second edition since 2020 and impresses with a more elegant design, greater range and lower price than its predecessor. Nevertheless, you still have to expect a price of at least 65,990 euros for a new model with a range of 650 km. If we take the development of the e-car market as a comparison, it will therefore probably be some time before there are really affordable hydrogen cars on the market here. At present, there is already a lively range of e-cars in the small car segment. The FIAT 500E, for example, is available for just under €24,000. On the positive side, there are already several hydrogen filling stations, including one in Dresden. Especially if you have a hydrogen filling station near you anyway, it is well worth testing a hydrogen car.
What do you have to watch out for when refueling with hydrogen?
In any case, it is important to note that not every hydrogen filling station can be used by every vehicle. The various hydrogen filling stations differ in their pressure stage and compressor size, as commercial vehicles require different technical prerequisites here than hydrogen cars. Commercial vehicles require a pressure rating of 350 bar and can take up to 16 kg of hydrogen, while normal hydrogen cars require a pressure rating of 700 bar and can take up to 6 kg of hydrogen. Charging stations for e-cars can now be found almost everywhere in Germany. However, due to the significantly lower coverage by hydrogen filling stations, planning the desired route, including any refueling stops, is still essential for hydrogen cars.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen cars?
To answer this question, we dared to conduct a practical test: Carsten Wald from SachsenNetze HS.HD GmbH drove a Toyota Mirai back and forth from Dresden to Leipzig. His impression: "The driving impression is just like that of a normal electric car." Except for a few quiet noises, the impression is not much different. "The handling is not designed for sportiness. You can tell that the engineers put a high value on economy." According to Mr. Wald, this is also due to the fact that hydrogen is currently still a valuable raw material. The current price per kilogram is about 14 euros, and if you drive well, you can get about 100 kilometers with it. This means that driving is currently still more expensive than with a gasoline engine.
Carsten Wald sees the advantage of hydrogen in easy transport, among other things. In the future, hydrogen could be produced more cheaply for the global world market and transported easily. In addition, fuel cell cars are locally emission-free and can be refueled in just a few minutes - a real time-saver compared to battery vehicles. In addition, the heat generated by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen can be used directly to heat or cool the passenger cell, so no valuable drive energy needs to be used for this purpose.
According to Mr. Wald, the disadvantages are currently still the high purchase costs and the low density of filling stations. In addition, the efficiency of hydrogen cars is poorer. In the future, it will also be more important for hydrogen to be produced cleanly. Since the element does not exist in its pure form in nature, it must be produced. This consumes energy and is currently almost always done without renewable electricity.
At a glance
Advantages hydrogen car
Disadvantages hydrogen car
Are hydrogen cars the future
But does it really matter whether a car has slightly more or less efficiency? Or how clean the energy storage system is? Battery-electric cars are not "clean" either. The cobalt needed in the batteries, for example, can only be found in the Congo. The handling of human rights in this country cannot always be guaranteed. Lithium, too, cannot be extracted 100 % cleanly. Karl Lötsch from the "HZwo" innovation cluster at Chemnitz University of Technology therefore urges that the two alternative drives not be played off against each other: "When nuclear and coal were phased out, there was no discussion about photovoltaics OR wind energy." He makes it clear that all technologies that can help reduceCO2 emissions have their importance if we want to achieve the climate targets and not wait until 2030. "Hydrogen or fuel cell cars are today where BEV's were in 2013 in terms of economic development." A lot has happened with battery electric cars since then. The federal government also recognizes this opportunity and is promoting green hydrogen, which is producedCO2-free from water and electricity from renewable sources, with 10 billion euros in the coming years. This is to support investment in research into the decarbonization of industrial plants, the development of international partnerships and, in particular, the market ramp-up of hydrogen technologies (with around 7 billion euros). The EU wants to promote Europe-wide hydrogen production to one million tons by 2024 and thus also make hydrogen more affordable through economies of scale.
Why are hydrogen-powered vehicles only sold to a limited extent?
So far, hardly any hydrogen-powered vehicles have been sold or manufactured for mass production in Germany. But what is the main reason for this? The more than sparse hydrogen charging infrastructure has already been mentioned. In the whole of Germany at the beginning of 2023, there were just 105 filling stationsthat provide hydrogen refueling around the clock. This means that if you don't live or work near such a filling station, a hydrogen-powered vehicle is hardly an option.
But politics also plays a significant role here, knows Michael Otto, an employee of SachsenNetze HS.HD GmbH in Dresden. He says that politics is particularly focusing on hybrid vehicles and pure electric vehicles to achieve the prescribed emission targets. In recent years, investments have been made in expanding the charging infrastructure network for electromobility, subsidizing the installation of private charging points and increasing the environmental bonus when an electric vehicle or hybrid is purchased. In contrast, hydrogen-powered vehicles don't stand a chance. With the government subsidies, it is only logical that more electric vehicles and hybrids are being produced. There are now over 260 purely electrically powered vehicle models, more and more of which are also suitable for smaller budgets.
At a congress of the electrive.net, in which Michael Otto also participated, it was also mentioned that on the level of passenger cars, the battery will prevail over the fuel cell. This may be due, among other things, to the fact that fuel cell flagships, such as the Toyota Mirai still have a list price of 65,990 euros upwards. In contrast, there are significantly cheaper models in the electrically powered sector.
Of course, the large sales of electric vehicles are a great step forward with regard to the climate goals, Michael Otto knows. So far, however, hydrogen-powered vehicles have been produced mainly by Asian manufacturers, especially Toyota. And, as already mentioned, they still have a very proud price.
Which industries would benefit most from hydrogen propulsion?
For private individuals who cover an average of 40 to 60 kilometers per day and have enough time in the evening to recharge the electric vehicle, the range of e-cars, which is still limited compared to the internal combustion engine, is perfectly adequate.
But what about cargo vehicles that have to cover several hundred kilometers a day, such as trucks or buses? At this point, the charging time for currently average e-vehicles definitely becomes a problem. In the future, fuel cell vehicles could actually be the solution here, as well as in aviation or shipping. Because purely battery-powered, these vehicles would have to have an enormous battery, which would be far too heavy to date. By 2035, Airbus, for example, would like to have a completely climate-neutral aircraft in operation thanks to hydrogen. Companies in the truck sector, such as Schenker, also have big goals for the future. By 2030, more than 100,000 hydrogen-powered trucks are to be on the road.
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Current state of research
Within the framework of the National Innovation Program for Water and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP)80 million a year is to be made available for the development of new technology from 2021. A further €1.6 billion is to be invested by 2024 to implement the National Hydrogen Strategy. In addition, work is already underway on a €1.16 billion funding program to benefit trucks and commercial vehicles powered by hydrogen.
But the path to a completely climate-friendly hydrogen drive requires even more intensive research. Not only to keep up with electric vehicles in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of price. As already mentioned, fuel cell vehicles are very expensive in the private utility segment.
"However, the Asian manufacturers want to offer middle-class vehicles with hydrogen for prices between 25,000 and 30,000 euros by 2025," explains fuel cell expert Karl Lötsch. But research and technological progress are not only worthwhile for the end consumer.
Fuel cell cars, for example, are also a great opportunity for Saxony. Karl Lötsch continues: "We have the scientific and economic expertise here. The goal must be that hydrogen cars or at least essential parts come from Saxony."There are currently only three major development sites for fuel cells in Germany, and that is our federal state, along with Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. The already existing hydrogen pipelines of the chemical industry could also benefit the location.
Hydrogen cars or electric cars - Our conclusion
All the experts interviewed, Carsten Wald from SachsenNetze, Karl Lötsch from HZwo and Michael Otto from SachsenNetze HS.HD GmbH, agree: There are untapped opportunities in hydrogen and fuel cell cars. Hydrogen cars, along with battery electric vehicles, can be an important building block for decarbonization and the traffic turnaround. Another argument: since industry, such as the steel industry, cannot become "green" at all without hydrogen, hydrogen will necessarily have to be produced in very large quantities in the future. "In comparison, the demand of individual transport is small," says expert Mr. Lötsch. Moreover, it would be difficult to imagine manufacturing cars without a sustainable steel industry.
At present, however, the high vehicle prices mean that the switch is not yet worthwhile for everyone: energy providers are pioneers here in investigating the running costs of fuel cell cars for their fleets. "Even today, I can imagine hydrogen cars working very well for mobility service providers such as cab companies," explains Mr. Wald. Particularly in large urban areas such as Munich or Hamburg, the density of filling stations is already very good, he says, and a ride in a hydrogen car is just as comfortable as in a combustion engine anyway. Mr. Wald has already confirmed the first reports of hydrogen cars being used as cabs at the beginning of 2023.
Do you already have experience with hydrogen cars? How do you see the future of mobility? Write us your opinion and your topic suggestions to email@example.com!