It is no secret that the world faces a serious energy crisis. To power man’s growing needs we are burning through copious amounts of fuel and oil being a finite source will inevitably run out, and that might be sooner than you realize. In a 2013 report by British Petroleum, it is estimated that the world’s proven oil reserves will run out in 53.3 years at the current rate of consumption. Although, these figures point at the “proven” reserves and therefore cannot be taken at face value the situation is nonetheless alarming.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles: Tomorrow’s Fantasy? Or a Potent Solution for Today’s Problems?
Today I will be talking about a potential solution: FCEVs or Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles. In the simplest terms: A FCEV generates motive power via an electric motor(s) located at either the front or rear axles (like in an EV) powered by a fuel cell. In this cell Hydrogen from a tank is mixed with Oxygen from the air producing water and also creating a flow of electrons between the terminals of the cell, hence generating electric current. Complex mechanical assemblies (like Engine Timing Belts or Transmissions) are not required. Therefore, removing the need, like in EVs for regular maintenance.
- The only exhaust is pure water. (Yay!)
- Smaller batteries, therefore disposal of toxic substances is less of a concern.
- Little battery degradation compared to EVs hence longer lifespans.
- Much longer range than a similar EV.
- Refuelling only takes minutes compared to hours in an EV.
- Hydrogen is so abundant, it is virtually a renewable resource.
- Vehicle efficiency is only 22% compared to a whopping 73% for EVs though almost twice that of internal combustion engine cars at just 13%. *Citation
- Fuel Cell cars are incredibly expensive. A Toyota Mirai (comparable to a Prius in class) starts at over $58000! And that’s before any import duties!
- The total absence of Hydrogen fueling infrastructure in many parts of the world (including Pakistan) means they are nigh-impossible to run in many regions.
- Hydrogen is fairly expensive. This results in high running costs due to expensive fuel, take a look at the chart below: It shows the cost (in USD) to cover 300 miles.
Evident from the chart fuel cell vehicles cost even more to run than a comparable internal combustion engine car. But just because they are not cost-effective and impractical here in Pakistan and just about anywhere in the world right now, doesn’t mean I am not going to show you some FCEVs. Interestingly and in contrast with BEVs, the category have mostly been dominated by the Japanese. Nissan even has a concept called “Terra” but I will restrict myself to include only production vehicles.
2016-2018 Toyota Mirai
- Power: 151 HP
- Torque: 354 Nm
- 0-100: 9.4s
- Range: 500 km
- Price (US): $58620
The Mirai is an interesting and a technically accomplished car. Its looks make even the Prius and Nissan Leaf look conventional. With a space for four in a Prius-like cabin, it is pleasant to drive with quick responses and instant electric torque. And of course, there is no running noise. Its fuel efficiency is rated at 28.9 km/l-equivalent, although that number is totally irrelevant in the real world.
2016-2018 Honda Clarity Fuel-Cell
- Power: 174 HP
- Torque: 300 Nm
- 0-100: 8.4s
- Range: 589 km
- Price (US): N/A
And the Honda-Toyota rivalry prevails even in the foreseeable future. The Clarity is Honda’s take on the FCEV and I have got to say, it looks way better than the Mirai. It also has a leg up in practicality with its 5 seats. However, it is still a fuel cell car and thus bound by the same limitations. The fuel efficiency rating on this ride is 28.5 km/l-equivalent, but just like the Mirai that doesn’t mean anything.
It is safe to say that the long-term picture of hydrogen fuel cells in automotive applications is still emerging. The biggest competitor to these cars is the emergence of BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles) that cheaper to buy and run. Also, the infrastructure for charging EVs is widely available worldwide not to mention the ability to charge at home. In contrast to the very limited Hydrogen fueling stations that a rarity even today. Personally, I do not think Hydrogen will make it to the consumer automotive market in mass quantities instead it will find uses in commercial and locomotive scenarios. Like it is being done even today in Germany’s Fuel Cell trains. It is also worth mentioning that a lot of people still think the overall efficiency of fuel cells renders them a very undesirable choice. Among them is Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk, see what he as to say:
But as with pretty much everything, opinions are divided. At the 2015 iteration of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), renowned physicist Dr Michio Kaku was seen on a Toyota launch event emphasizing on how hydrogen is the future. Have a listen:
While it may not be considered a coincidence that a company which sells Battery Electric Vehicles can be seen pointing out the drawbacks and disadvantages of the fuel cell vehicle. In contrast a company who has invested in hydrogen for the future can be seen promoting it, it is clear that both have their downsides. The writing on the wall will be clear in the future as to which point of view lines up more with the demand of the consumer. Will the buyer of tomorrow be more interesting in shorter refueling times and greater range? Or will the preference be lower cost of ownership? History will write that story but meanwhile, one thing is absolutely clear about hydrogen. It certainly has the teeth to compete with battery electric vehicles for the title of “The Automotive Power-train of the future.”
Ending on a side note here; In my next article I would like to talk about a more immediate future: Kia-Lucky Motors is establishing itself as major player in the Pakistani automotive industry, even as we speak. I’ll be talking about potential cars and SUVs that we may see in a Pakistani showroom not too far from today and evaluate if they have what it takes to compete with the established players like Honda Atlas, Toyota Indus and Pak Suzuki.