Hydrogen as an Alternative Fuel

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Extracted from InsightTech podcast episode, Francesco and Statzon discuss various aspects of hydrogen technology and its application in e-mobility. This topic has received relatively less attention in mainstream media, possibly due to the rapid growth of battery technology in the market. 

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Hydrogen as an Alternative Fuel 

In this episode, we will cover the following topics:  

  • Environmental Impact: Hydrogen vs. Battery Electric Cars 
  • Practicality in Personal Vehicles: Hydrogen Fuel Cells vs. Batteries 
  • Addressing the Infrastructure Gap Between Electric and Hydrogen Vehicles 
  • Main Obstacles to Fuel Cell Vehicle Adoption 
  • Advancements in Hydrogen Storage Technology 
  • Recent Developments in Fuel Cell Technology 

Francesco Valle, Hydrogen Expert 

Francesco Valle is a consultant in the field of hydrogen and fuel-cells, with over a decade of experience, he serves as a project manager consultant in the fuel cell industry, specializing in research and development. Today, we will be discussing hydrogen technology and fuel cells in relation to e-mobility. 

Statzon: There's ongoing debate between hydrogen and batteries for mobility. One key question is whether hydrogen or battery electric cars have a better environmental impact. What's your take on this? 

Francesco: Firstly, it's crucial to define the context and requirements as we discuss two technologies that share similarities in energy storage but differ significantly in characteristics, impacting their application. Recent years have seen extensive discussion on efficiency, comparing fuel cells and batteries, with considerations often lacking context and specific application requirements. Generally, battery technology is preferred for some applications, while hydrogen and fuel cells excel in others, with certain cases falling in between. For instance, in the automotive industry, the choice between hydrogen and batteries depends on the car type and engine, influenced by usage patterns. Ultimately, the end user's needs dictate the choice. In the automotive domain, both technologies offer advantages. However, there are also instances where it's quite clear which of the two is better. 

Statzon: You made a good point there. Both battery and hydrogen technologies are used to store and transport energy. Recently, there was an article about hydrogen production methods, which can have different environmental effects. They're usually categorized as gray, blue, and green hydrogen, with green being considered the cleanest. Francesco, could you explain more about these types of hydrogen and how they're made? 

Francesco: There has been some mention of "white hydrogen" recently. It's produced directly from solar energy, which is what we aim to use in the future, alongside green hydrogen. However, the focus primarily lies on green hydrogen, produced from renewable sources. There are other types of hydrogen produced using fossil fuels, but these are considered temporary solutions for a transition period. Therefore, all discussions should be centered around the use of green hydrogen; otherwise, it doesn't align with the goal of zero-emission applications using fuel cell systems. 


Statzon: As far as I'm aware, the production of green hydrogen is currently minimal compared to gray hydrogen. Approximately 90% of the hydrogen produced today is gray, with only a small portion being green. Do we expect them to change in the future? 

Francesco:  Yes, that's correct at the moment. The majority of hydrogen is currently gray hydrogen, produced from fossil fuels, as it's already widely used in industries such as ammonia production, rocket fuel, cosmetics, fertilizers, and also in the food industry. However, for decarbonization efforts, we need to leverage hydrogen's key feature: its ability to store energy in a chemical form with zero emissions. This makes it particularly suitable for renewable energy production. The transition to a hydrogen economy involves both green energy production and energy storage, presenting a complex challenge. So, to address your question about why we don't currently have large-scale production of green hydrogen, it's because the process needs significant scaling up. We need to enhance both energy production and hydrogen production methods, such as using electrolyzers, which have seen significant development in recent years. 

Statzon: You mentioned hydrogen use in e-mobility. While some car manufacturers have introduced models powered by hydrogen fuel cells, battery vehicles currently dominate the market. Considering both fuel cell technology and batteries, which do you think is more practical for everyday use in personal vehicles: hydrogen fuel cells or batteries? 

Francesco: Let's clarify something first: both fuel cell electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles are considered electric vehicles, as they both utilize an electric motor for propulsion. While they share the same vehicle type, their main difference lies in how energy is stored within the vehicle, which significantly impacts functionality and user experience. 

When choosing the specific energy storage system, it's crucial to consider various requirements such as cost, weight, volume, capacity, efficiency (which affects driving range), and charging time, along with generic factors like durability and safety. These requirements vary depending on the application. 

As a general rule, hydrogen solutions with fuel cells are preferable for large energy storage needs, while batteries are more suitable for lesser demands. 

The simplicity of battery systems, focused mainly on the battery component, contrasts with the complexity of hydrogen systems, which involve multiple components including hydrogen storage, fuel cells, and auxiliary systems. 

For instance, doubling energy storage in battery electric vehicles significantly increases weight and volume, whereas in fuel cell electric vehicles, doubling hydrogen tanks has a minor impact on system complexity and size. 

In general, smaller city cars prefer battery electric vehicles due to simplicity and suitability for short distances. However, heavy-duty vehicles with substantial energy storage requirements find batteries limiting due to weight and payload constraints. In such cases, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer efficiency and practicality advantages. 

For example, if a large family can afford only one car and needs both city commuting and long-distance travel capabilities, a hydrogen car may be suitable, offering convenience without significant refueling time. 

Ultimately, the choice between hydrogen fuel cells and batteries depends on specific use cases, vehicle size, energy requirements, and charging infrastructure. 

Free hydrogen market data

Statzon: There's a gap in the availability of charging infrastructure between electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Currently, the global electric charging infrastructure is much larger than the hydrogen refueling network. This shortage of hydrogen refueling stations could be a major reason why hydrogen cars or fuel cell electric vehicles struggle to gain popularity in the mainstream market, particularly in Europe. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are over 1 million charging stations worldwide, with about 2.7 million charging points. In contrast, as of the end of 2022, there were only 840 hydrogen refueling stations globally. 

Francesco: It's true that there's a disproportionate gap in the ease of refueling between battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). This is influenced by several factors. Firstly, BEVs benefit from more mature technology and simpler recharging methods. Moreover, the market for BEVs is more developed, facilitating easier scaling up. For example, in my neighborhood, I observe people recharging their electric vehicles at home by simply plugging them in, eliminating the need for dedicated charging stations. 

In contrast, refueling a hydrogen-powered car is more complex and typically requires specialized facilities. The availability of hydrogen refueling points is limited, resulting in the "chicken and egg" dilemma. Consumers hesitate to purchase FCEVs due to the lack of refueling stations, while companies are reluctant to invest in infrastructure without sufficient demand. 

Addressing this situation will require time and a more intricate system. Looking ahead, we must consider updating electrical infrastructure and reorganizing urban areas to accommodate the growing demand for charging stations. Imagine a future where every vehicle on the road is electric—this would necessitate significant changes in urban infrastructure and organization. 

In such a future, there will be advantages, particularly concerning shorter refueling times. Currently, queues at refueling stations are not uncommon, and the recharging time for current vehicles is around five minutes. This is comparable to the refueling time for traditional vehicles. However, the recharging time for battery electric vehicles is considerably longer, potentially leading to problems in the future. 

Statzon: When you mention that hydrogen refueling takes about five minutes for current vehicles, what is the approximate range you can achieve in terms of kilometers after such a refueling? As an electric vehicle driver, I'm always considering the time it takes to charge and how many kilometers I can cover within that time. 

Francesco: In general, you can expect approximately 50% more range with a fuel cell electric vehicle. However, the range also depends significantly on the type of car and the amount of hydrogen stored inside. Typically, a car with 1 kg of hydrogen can travel around 100 kilometers. Current fuel cell electric vehicles can store up to 6 kg of hydrogen. While there have been records, such as a fuel cell Mirai traveling 1000 kilometers, these are not typical of everyday driving. Achieving such distances usually involves driving very slowly and attentively to minimize consumption. 

Statzon: Is it likely that the investment required to build charging stations for electric cars is lower compared to building a hydrogen station? 

Francesco: Setting up a hydrogen refueling station is indeed more expensive. However, it's important to consider what I mentioned earlier. Building one refueling station is one thing, but creating a network of thousands of such stations to accommodate millions of vehicles in the future is another. This scalability aspect is crucial and directly impacts the electric network, as mentioned earlier. Therefore, it's vital to strike a balance between these factors. 

One advantage of hydrogen is its natural storage capability. Unlike electricity, which needs to be used promptly, hydrogen molecules can store energy. So, looking at the bigger picture, even with electricity, there's a need to store it somewhere. One option is to store electricity in the form of hydrogen and then convert it back to electricity to refuel a car. In both cases, storage capability will be necessary. Considering a future with only zero-emission vehicles, the management of charging stations and the recharging process for electric vehicles may become more complex. 

Statzon: Currently, about half of the stations are in Asia, with the majority found in Japan and Korea. Why do you think Japan and Korea are so keen on fuel cell electric cars, especially since most of the hydrogen refueling stations are concentrated in these countries? 

Francesco: Even with recent investments in hydrogen, Japan and South Korea continue to lead in fuel cell manufacturing. Currently, it is estimated that there is an 11 gigawatt manufacturing capacity, with more than half of it originating from these two countries. 

This indicates their advanced capabilities in this sector, which in turn has facilitated the development of their recharging infrastructure. 

Furthermore, the number of refueling stations in Germany is becoming quite significant compared to other European countries. So there are already plans in Europe to scale up hydrogen infrastructure.  

Statzon: Is there a goal within the European Union to significantly improve the hydrogen refueling network in the future, considering their current push for countries to build it? 

Francesco: Yes, this is fundamental for initiating and scaling up the entire economy. As people begin to purchase these types of vehicles, the demand will increase. However, what will be equally important is the use of hydrogen in the field of transportation, particularly for trucks and buses. This is currently a top priority. Hydrogen is considered the best technology for decarbonizing this sector, and having an adequate network of refueling stations is crucial for its success. This is the primary reason at the moment. Once there is a well-established network of refueling stations, more people will likely consider getting fuel cell electric vehicles as well. 

Statzon: Is the refueling network and distribution of hydrogen the main obstacle for fuel cell vehicles to start growing rapidly on the roads? Additionally, what are the current challenges hindering the widespread adoption of fuel cell vehicles? 

Regarding pricing, I'm aware that fuel cell cars and trucks are more expensive than internal combustion engine vehicles and also pricier than battery electric cars. However, is pricing the primary reason why people don't choose hydrogen fuel cell vehicles over battery electric ones? 

Francesco: So cost is indeed a crucial factor, but it's just one of many considerations. In certain applications and user cases, it might not be the top priority. Sometimes, if a specific task needs to be performed, a higher cost might be justified. However, the main reasons for the higher costs are the vehicle itself and the cost of hydrogen. 

Battery electric vehicles have been around longer and benefit from larger-scale manufacturing, which helps justify their pricing. As for the fuel, especially with green hydrogen produced from electricity, there's an additional conversion step, making it more expensive. However, hydrogen has the advantage of being an intrinsically energy-storing molecule, which could lead to cheaper production in areas with abundant, inexpensive electricity, like those with ample sunlight. 

This highlights the importance of establishing efficient hydrogen production and distribution systems, along with scaling up production. These are the key factors influencing costs. Regarding the adoption of fuel cell technology, regulatory requirements play a significant role. For instance, the European Union's plan to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2035 will shape the market significantly. Additionally, funding, public demand for green transportation, and various application-specific factors all contribute to the adoption of this technology. 

Free hydrogen market data

Statzon: From an energy storage perspective, batteries are indeed relatively expensive and rely on finite raw materials. On the other hand, can hydrogen be produced in theoretically unlimited quantities? 

Francesco: Yes, that's true. For the production and use of hydrogen, it depends on the type of fuel cells. However, certain fuel cells, like PEM fuel cells that dominate the transport sector, also require precious materials. The advantage, as you mentioned, is their continuous use, but they do have a limited lifetime. Eventually, these devices will need to be disposed of. Similar considerations apply to batteries. In both cases, it's crucial to establish a good recycling strategy, which is feasible for both batteries and fuel cells. 

Statzon: As an energy technology engineer myself, I recall that a major challenge in hydrogen storage technology was the necessity to store it at high pressure and low temperatures to prevent molecule escape. Have there been any developments in hydrogen storage technology? 
Francesco: Yes, indeed. When it comes to storage, various applications require different types of storage solutions. One of the most critical areas is the automotive industry, where space, weight, and safety are paramount concerns. It was imperative to develop storage methods that are lightweight, compact, and cost-effective. Significant progress has been made in this area, addressing the challenge posed by hydrogen's light molecular weight, which results in a large volume at atmospheric pressure. To store a substantial amount of energy in a confined space, hydrogen needs to be compressed at high pressures, typically around 700 bars, using specialized carbon-reinforced tanks. While this approach has become safer and more efficient, it remains a critical aspect of hydrogen storage technology. 

There are also alternative methods, such as cryogenic storage, which involves liquefying hydrogen at extremely low temperatures. Although maintaining such temperatures is challenging, this approach allows for energy storage without the need for extremely high pressures. Some companies are heavily investing in this technology, particularly for applications like trucks. Liquefied hydrogen could also prove to be a promising solution for short-haul aviation, offering an alternative to high-pressure tanks. 


What are the recent developments in fuel cell technology that you can share with us, other than the storage advancements we've discussed before? 

Certainly. So, in general, let me speak a bit about Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which is the type of fuel cell I have the most experience with. They are also the most mature and widely used type of fuel cells due to their high power density and low operating temperature. This versatility makes them ideal for use in the transport sector. Over the last few decades, there has been extensive research and development to enhance materials, with the main objectives being to increase performance, reduce costs, and extend the lifetime of these fuel cells. This development is ongoing and remains crucial. 

The key components critical in terms of materials include catalysts and polymeric membranes. Recently, there has been a proposal to ban the materials currently used for membranes in PEM fuel cells, known as perfluorinated sulfonic acid (PFSA) materials. If implemented, it would necessitate adapting the technology and finding alternative materials. This remains a significant area of focus. 

In the past year, there has been increased attention on manufacturing processes as companies transition from small-scale to large-scale production. Improving processes to produce components quickly and cost-effectively has been a priority. 

Moreover, there is growing interest in operational strategies, focusing on how to utilize these devices within complex systems effectively. Given variable inputs and outputs, as well as diverse primary energy sources, optimizing the use of these devices is crucial. With the coexistence of various technological solutions, finding the best way to utilize them depending on the specific context is essential. This includes not only ensuring their operational functionality but also maximizing their durability and cost-effectiveness. 

Overall, operational strategies are becoming a hot topic in research and development, as they offer opportunities to enhance performance, reduce costs, and improve overall efficiency. 

Free hydrogen market data



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