Fuel cells: The need for emission-free long-haul vehicles
All major players in the automotive industry are fighting for the development and use of emission-free vehicles: A stormy change in drive technology is underway. The new report from IDTechEx, “Fuel cell electric vehicles 2022-2042”, analyzes the role of fuel cells in road vehicles. Fuel cell systems have potential as a technology for road traffic that has to be emission-free, but the daily driving needs cannot be covered by a pure battery drive.
Road traffic is a major contributor to any country’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, cars, light commercial vehicles, trucks and buses are responsible for around 93% of traffic-related greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Similarly, road vehicles in the US are responsible for about 85% of domestic traffic emissions. With this high proportion, the industry is firmly in the crosshairs of politics.
It is recognized that almost complete decarbonization of road transport is required for countries to meet their 2050 climate targets set under the Paris Agreement. Equally important is the growing recognition of the impact that transport emissions have on local air quality and the health of urban populations. Big cities are increasingly trying to ban or tax the entry of internal combustion engine vehicles into city centers, affecting technology choices for public transport, delivery vehicles and taxi fleets, as well as private cars. Emission-free solutions are needed for all road vehicle segments, and the technology must be able to handle the daily duty cycle of these applications, however strenuous they may be.
While battery-electric solutions are driving the transition to emission-free powertrains, the energy density of today’s lithium-ion batteries for automobiles means that the daily range of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) is limited both by the maximum weight of the batteries to be transported by a vehicle and by the amount available Space for batteries inside the vehicle.
Fuel cell systems (which integrate a hydrogen fuel cell into an electric vehicle architecture) generate electrical energy to power the vehicle through a chemical reaction between hydrogen fuel (which is stored in tanks in the vehicle under high pressure) and purified intake air. Compared to pure battery drive trains, fuel cell systems can offer a superior energy density and thus a greater range with the same weight.
This benefit, combined with the potential to refuel with hydrogen faster than charging a large lithium-ion battery, means that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer operational flexibility closer to current internal combustion engine vehicles than BEVs can offer. In some applications, FCEV may be the only viable zero emission powertrain solution.
Large manufacturers such as Toyota, Ford, Honda, GM, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW have invested large sums of money in advancing fuel cell technology over the past 30 years, and the technology has been commercially available since 2014 when Toyota began mass producing its Mirai FCEV.
For passenger cars, however, the culmination of these efforts is the reality that only two major OEMs, Toyota and Hyundai, have FCEV vehicles in production in 2021 and fewer than 10,000 FCEVs were sold in 2020. In comparison, battery electric vehicles, the development of which began in earnest at a similar time as FCEV, and sold more than 3 million units in 2020. FC cars have a moving target that will be difficult to achieve, with BEV technologies advancing rapidly in this segment. While BEV powertrains have concerns about the need to replace batteries during the life of the vehicle and there have been several vehicle recalls related to battery fires, FCEV vehicles will face similar problems as fuel cell system technology matures. Hyundai announced in August this year that it would recall 15,000 NEXOs (all NEXOs sold before June 2021) to fix a rattle problem. They also announced a “buyback program” for NEXOs that need a fuel cell stack replacement 250,000 km ago. Hyundai’s lack of quality is a setback for FCEV car advocates, as the NEXO accounts for roughly half of FCEV car sales worldwide.
The range and fueling advantage for FCEV means that heavy-duty applications such as long-haul or high-mileage bus operations that would require a very large battery with a battery-only architecture are likely to have greater opportunities for fuel cell technology in the short term. The IDTechEx report examines the use of fuel cell vehicles in these sectors and looks at the progress made. Hyundai, for example, is conducting commercial trials in Switzerland with a fleet of 46 FCEV trucks, which is expected to increase to 1,600 trucks by 2025. They also announced upcoming FCEV truck projects in the US and orders for 4,000 FCEV trucks in China. With more than 150 fuel cell buses in Europe, 65 in the US and more than 3000 in China, there is also some market penetration for FCEVs in the bus market. A growing order book for FCEV buses suggests that demand is increasing, at least up to a pilot scale.
Electric vehicles powered by fuel cells can play a role in achieving climate protection goals, but significant obstacles still need to be overcome before low-emission fuel cell vehicles are commercially viable. Last but not least, the need for low-cost production of renewable green hydrogen, which is essential to make FCEV both economically viable and to provide the low-emission references for which the technology is funded.
Due to the high production costs of green hydrogen and its relative scarcity, it is currently not economically viable as a fuel for transport. 95% of the hydrogen produced today is obtained from fossil fuels, which is cheap but does not significantly improve the carbon footprint of road vehicles. The need to build hydrogen refueling stations is also an obstacle that will limit the use of FCEV to those countries willing to commit to significant infrastructure funding. There is also an inherent inefficiency in using green hydrogen as a fuel for transport. Due to inefficiencies in converting renewable electricity into pressurized hydrogen fuel and then back into electricity to power the vehicle, renewable electricity is likely to have a greater impact on emissions reduction when used in battery electric vehicles.
The IDTechEx report “Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles 2022-2042” describes the current status of the development of fuel cell vehicles for passenger cars, light commercial vehicles, trucks and city buses. The report provides an overview of fuel cell technologies, hydrogen generation, and carbon capture and storage. IDTechEx provides its analysis of the technical and economic challenges of fuel cell use in the various road traffic applications and presents its independent 20-year projections for the future of fuel cell vehicles for the road traffic, including sales projections, fuel cell demand projections, and market value projections.
The fuel cell electric vehicle report is part of IDTechEx’s broader mobility research portfolio, tracking electric vehicle adoption, battery trends, autonomy, and demand on land, sea, and air. We’ll help you navigate everything that’s ahead of you. Learn more at www.IDTechEx.com/Research/EV.
Author: Dr. David Wyatt, technology analyst, IDTechEx