Hydrogen or electric: which will drive petrol cars off the road?


Alan Tovey Industry Editor

November 3, 2015

As drivers look to the future, will it be hydrogen that is powering their vehicles in coming decades?

There is a race taking place in the motor industry between two powerful camps to decide what will propel the cars of the future.

On one side sit some of the big names of car making: Japanese giant Toyota; its domestic rival Honda; and their Asian neighbour Hyundai, who are all betting big on the potential of hydrogen power.

• Adapt or die: the new challenge facing UK manufacturers

The other camp, smaller, but more vocal, is being led by tech visionary Elon Musk, who is convinced that electric cars powered by batteries represent the future and is sticking with them for his Tesla cars.

Toyota has put billions into research to deliver the Mirai, a saloon powered by a hydrogen fuel cell . A handful of these cars are now on UK roads as early adopters such as Transport for London investigate their potential and Toyota examines how the concept could be scaled. Hyundai’s ix35 and the Honda Clarity are also on the road.

340 miles
The range of Toyota’s Mirai, which is powered by a single hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cells work by using a “fuel stack” to mix outside air with the hydrogen they carry in pressurised tanks in a chemical reaction which creates electricity, with the only emission being water. This electricity is used to charge a battery or drive electric motors to power the car, known as a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV).

While this clean power might seem to be the obvious choice, Musk is less than convinced. Hydrogen power is “extremely silly” according to the billionaire PayPal founder, who is expending much of his fortune constructing a “gigafactory” to produce the batteries that power his Tesla electric vehicles (EVs).

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, it’s not a source of energy,” he told a conference earlier this year. “So you have to get that energy from somewhere. It’s extremely inefficient.” He believes that hydrogen is limited in that to create it, water needs to be electrolysed and the power to do this has to come from somewhere. It then has to be pressurised so enough can be stored in a tank to drive a car.

“If you took a solar panel and used that energy to just charge a battery directly, rather than trying to split water, take out the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen and then put it in a car to run the fuel cell, it is about half the efficiency,” he said. “Why do that? It makes no sense.”

Musk is the most outspoken in his doubts about hydrogen power but he’s not alone. This summer Hideyuki Sakamoto, a Nissan executive, also claimed that the future was electric – and that electricity would be stored in batteries.

“Our zero-emission strategy centres on electric vehicles,” he told Nissan’s AGM. “We are pursuing improved electric powertrain technologies which will enable us to mass produce and market EVs that equal or surpass the convenience of petrol-powered cars.”

Nissan already produces the Leaf, the best selling EV on the market, and Sakamoto’s statement indicates hydrogen will continue to play only a small role in the company’s future.

So is the future battery or hydrogen?

In hydrogen’s favour are its similarities to petrol. It takes a few minutes to fill a tank with the gas in a process similar to topping up a conventional car and many have a long range – the Mirai’s is 340 miles. Against it is the huge and costly task of developing the infrastructure to support hydrogen, from creating enough of the gas, transporting it and building a network of filling stations – there are just four in the UK at present.

EVs powered solely by batteries have shorter ranges and charging them takes longer – even “rapid” chargers take 30 minutes – but the infrastructure to support battery charging is seen as easier to introduce.

Cost remains a factor for both. FCEVs’ infancy means prices are high – Toyota’s Mirai lists at £66,000 – and EVs such as Nissan’s Leaf and Tesla’s cars are priced at a premium over similar-sized conventional vehicles.

Toyota is open about the challenges of hydrogen, but has set itself the target of delivering more than 30,000 FCEVs within five years. “Fuel cells are part of our corporate vision,” says Neil Spires, of Toyota. “We buy into the idea of a hydrogen society because it’s such a good way of storing energy.”

Fuel cells are part of our corporate vision. We buy into the idea of a hydrogen society because it’s such a good way of storing energy
Neil Spires, Toyota

This involves networks of hydrogen filling stations which can generate the gas through renewable power such as wind turbines, and in the longer term an industrial base creating the gas. “It’s a major challenge but if the auto industry comes on board, hopefully it will grow mutually,” Spires adds. “The EU buys into it, and we could end up with a smarter society where countries can control their energy needs.”

It’s a huge leap, especially as Spires expects to sell just 15 Mirais in the UK next year – but it was Toyota which made the hybrid mainstream with its Prius, which it introduced in 1997.

“Current hybrids like the Prius are a stepping stone to the longer-term goal,” says Spires. “We’re not saying hydrogen isn’t a bigger challenge, but when we introduced the first Prius we were laughed at.”

While infrastructure issues are significant, in the long term it makes economic sense to tackle them, according to Henri Winand, chief executive of Intelligent Energy, a Loughborough-based company that makes fuel cells.

“Fuel cells are a ‘one to many’ system, but plugs to charge electric cars are ‘one to few’,” he says, likening charging a battery to “filling a fuel tank with a syringe” because of the time it takes, meaning many more plugs are needed.

Germany is planning 500 hydrogen filling stations

“People want cars that give them freedom, not take it away,” says Winand. “They do not want to plan their lives around their car’s range, they want to fill up and go.”

Germany is planning 500 hydrogen filling stations, showing the infrastructure is achievable and once a critical mass of FCEVs are on the road, a hydrogen network will be economic in a way that EVs cannot be for car manufacturers, Winand claims.

“An EV just can’t achieve the same range,” he says. “It’s simple: you want to go further so do you put in more fuel with a bigger tank or do you add heavy, expensive batteries. That battery is hardware which is capital expenditure for car makers, it’s just not economic when you are talking making masses of cars.”

Less sure of a hydrogen-driven future is Paul Newton, auto analyst at IHS. “While a more complex technology, fuel cells are a genuine solution to the almost unbreakable model of filling up and driving off. But it’s unlikely they will take over or compete with EVs on a cost and complexity basis.”

Where most experts broadly agree is that motorists of the future are likely to drive a mixture of vehicles. “No one is really gambling one way or the other,” says Newton. “Fuel cells or pure electric cars won’t completely replace hybrids or petrol engines for decades.”

This article was written by Alan Tovey Industry Editor from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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