A lifetime’s consumption of fossil fuels visualized
Battery electric vs. hydrogen fuel cell
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Since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf (2010) and Tesla Model S (2012), battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have become the primary focus of the automotive industry.
This structural change is happening at an incredible speed – 3 million BEVs were sold in China in 2021, up from 1 million last year. In the US, the number of models for sale is expected to double by 2024.
However, to achieve global climate goals, the International Energy Agency says the auto industry is needed 30 times more minerals per year. Many fear this could put a strain on supplies.
“The data show a looming mismatch between the world’s heightened climate ambition and the availability of critical minerals.”
– Fatih Birol, IEA
Fortunately, BEVs are not the only solution to decarbonizing transport. In this infographic we explain how the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) works.
How does a hydrogen fuel cell work?
FCEVs are a type of electric vehicle that produce no emissions (apart from the environmental cost of production). The main difference is that BEVs contain a large battery to store electricity, while FCEVs generate their own electricity using a hydrogen fuel cell.
|Important BEV components||Important FCEV components|
|onboard charger||hydrogen tank|
|electric motor||fuel cell stack|
Let’s go through the functions of the main FCEV components.
First there is the lithium-ion battery, which stores electricity to power the electric motor. In an FCEV, the battery is smaller because it is not the primary power source. For general context, the Model S includes Plaid 7,920 Lithium-ion cells while the Toyota Mirai contains FCEV 330.
FCEVs have a fuel tank that stores hydrogen in its gaseous form. Liquid hydrogen cannot be used as it requires cryogenic temperatures (-150°C or -238°F). Hydrogen gas along with oxygen are the two inputs for the hydrogen fuel cell.
fuel cell stack and motor
The fuel cell uses hydrogen gas to generate electricity. To explain the process in layman’s terms, hydrogen gas flows through the cell and is split protons (H+) and electrons (e-).
protons pass through electrolyte, which is a liquid or gel-like material. Electrons cannot pass through the electrolyte, so they take an external route instead. This creates an electric current to drive the motor.
At the end of the fuel cell process, the electrons and protons meet and combine with oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction that produces water (H2O) which then exits the exhaust pipe.
Which technology wins?
As you can see from the table below, most automakers have shifted their focus to BEVs. Above all, the BEV group is missing Toyotathe largest automaker in the world.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been criticized by notable industry figures, including the CEO of Tesla Elon Musk and Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess.
Green hydrogen is needed for steel, chemistry, aero, … and should not end up in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow and difficult to implement and transport.
– Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group
Toyota and Hyundai are at odds as both companies continue to invest in fuel cell development. The difference between them, however, is that Hyundai (and sister brand Kia) have still released several BEVs.
This is a surprising mistake for Toyota, which pioneered hybrid vehicles like the Prius. It’s reasonable to think that after this success, BEVs would be a natural next step. As Wired reports, Toyota has bet all of its chips on hydrogen development, ignoring the fact that most of the industry was moving in a different direction. When the company realized its mistake and needed to buy time, it resorted to lobbying versus the introduction of electric vehicles.
Faced with a losing hand, Toyota does what most big companies do when they realize they’re playing the wrong game — it fights to change the game.
Toyota is expected to release its first BEV, the bZ4X crossover, for the 2023 model year — more than a decade since Tesla launched the Model S.
Challenges for the introduction of fuel cells
Several challenges stand in the way of widespread FCEV adoption.
One is in-car performance, although the difference is small. In terms of maximum range, the best FCEV (Toyota Mirai) was rated by the EPA 402 mileswhile the best received BEV (Lucid Air). 505 miles.
Two major problems are 1) hydrogen’s efficiency problem and 2) a very limited number of filling stations. According to the US Department of Energy, they are right now 48 Hydrogen filling stations across the country, with 47 located in California and 1 located in Hawaii.
On the contrary, BEVs have 49,210 Charging stations nationwide and can also be charged at home. That number is sure to increase, as the Biden administration has allotted 5 billion dollars that states expand their charging networks.