Expert Session: hydrogen

Just when you thought you were up to date on electric cars, we happily introduce you to another interesting technology: hydrogen cars, or ‘fuel cell electric vehicles’. So how do hydrogen cars perform in comparison to electric cars or combustion engines? And will we all be driving them in five years’ time? Erik van Wermeskerken, Large Accounts Accountmanager at Athlon Netherlands, tells us more.

    Zeppelins on the road or an emission-free future? Hydrogen cars explained.

    First things first: how do hydrogen cars work?

    “A hydrogen-powered car is almost identical to an electric car, except that the energy is stored in hydrogen instead of the battery. Hydrogen is obtained by electrolysing water. That requires energy. In this process, water (HO2) is split into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O). When the two elements are combined in a ‘fuel cell’ in the car, electricity is released. The only emission is water. The hydrogen is stored at very high pressure in a safe tank in the car, to ensure that the car has a sufficient range. In other words, you fill up with hydrogen: by the kilo, not the gallon. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill up and a full tank will take you about 300 miles or more. The electricity produced by the Fuel Cell drives an electric engine, just like the one in an electric car. In the business, a hydrogen-powered car is referred to as an FCEV.”

    So what are the benefits of hydrogen cars?

    “Refuelling a hydrogen fuel cell isn’t like charging a battery. The hydrogen tank fills up in just a few minutes, so it’s very similar to filling a petrol or diesel tank. That means rapid refuelling and a high range. The range is a definite benefit. You don’t need a heavy battery pack, which means the car’s load capacity is more or less unchanged. That’s a real bonus for light commercial vehicles (vans), trucks and buses. What is more hydrogen has a better energy density than a battery. In other words, hydrogen is more suitable for energy storage.”

    But are there drawbacks as well?

    “I am afraid so. The extra fuel cell makes the car more expensive, for a start. And you can only fill up at special hydrogen filling stations. There aren’t enough of those at present, which is why many potential buyers opt for an electric car instead.

    “Another important point is that hydrogen is only a sustainable solution if it is sustainably produced: the water needs to be electrolysed with renewable energy. At present, only a very small percentage of hydrogen is produced that way. It’s important not to forget that a lot of energy is wasted when producing hydrogen and reconverting it into energy in the car. The energy needed to load a battery is far more efficient. Does that sound a bit abstract? There is a really clear explanation in this article

    “When it comes to managing a fleet, however, the most significant drawback is that there are very few hydrogen cars available right now. Hydrogen is currently where EVs were eight years ago. There are two or three models and a very limited infrastructure. In fact, there is even less infrastructure than there was for electric cars, because every home and office has an electricity supply, but hydrogen is a lot harder to get hold of.”

    Electric cars are setting the trend. Can hydrogen cars compete?

    “Once the purchase price of hydrogen cars comes down and the number of hydrogen filling stations goes up, though, I expect hydrogen to become competitive. Currently, only a handful of manufacturers, including Toyota and Hyundai, are committed to developing hydrogen cars. There is a lack of options for private cars, but also for vans and trucks. Very recently Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group announced they were teaming up as part of the Green Deal vision for sustainable transport and a carbon neutral Europe by 2050.”

    In which segments are hydrogen vehicles attractive for the fleet sector?

    “Hydrogen isn’t a good option for passenger cars for normal usage  Full electric cars are the best choice in that situation. Hydrogen is only suitable for cars that often need to travel long distances. That makes hydrogen a particularly attractive option for vans, trucks and buses, because FCEVs are so quick to refuel and hardly have to sacrifice any load capacity.”

    What advice do you have for customers who are interested in this technology for their fleet? And why should they choose Athlon as their fleet partner?

    “Fleet management means considering both the big picture and the small details. When it comes to short-term tactical decisions, hydrogen  is not in the focus at this moment. But the situation is similar to what it was for electric cars 5 to 10 years ago. It’s important to keep a close eye on all the developments. And the best way to do that is to have a partner to do it for you.”

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