Hydrogen Cars Unlikely to Eclipse Electric Vehicles

A century or so after automobiles first began traveling the roads, it has become clear that we need a replacement. While fossil fuel-powered vehicles have helped to advance human industrialization, they are also responsible for one-third of the air pollution in the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) as well as hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have emerged as much cleaner options. But while EVs are poised to take over the roads in the coming decades, FCEVs may have a different fate.

Both kinds of vehicles run on renewable energy and produce minimal emissions. Hydrogen-powered vehicles run on pressurized hydrogen and can be recharged as fast as fossil fuel vehicles. Additionally, they produce only 2.7g of carbon dioxide per kilometer compared to the 20.9g produced by electric vehicles. But despite being better than EVs in these aspects, FCEVs are unlikely to eclipse electric cars.

A recent report by Bloomberg concluded that “the bulk of the car, bus, and light truck market looks set to adopt battery-electric technology, which is a cheaper solution than fuel cells.” German automaker Volkswagen compared the energy efficiency of both battery-powered electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles, stating that “in the case of the passenger car, everything speaks in favor of the battery and practically nothing speaks in favor of hydrogen.”

For hydrogen to power an EV, energy has to go through a process referred to as the energy vector transition, transforming from liquid to gas and back to liquid; therein lies hydrogen’s inefficiency. For instance, to power an FCEV using 100 watts of electricity, the energy first has to be converted into hydrogen, a process that is around 75% energy efficient, meaning one-quarter of the original energy is lost.

In a real-world scenario, hydrogen is compressed, chilled and transported to the hydrogen station. This process is around 90% efficient. Once a vehicle is refueled, the hydrogen is converted into electricity, which is 60% efficient. The electricity used to power the vehicle is around 95% efficient, meaning by the time the vehicle is moving, only 38% (38 watts) of the original 100 watts have been used.

On the other hand, the energy used to power EVs moves through wires from the power source all the way to the vehicle, losing only around 5% of its efficiency in transit. Another 10% of the energy is lost from charging and discharging the battery, and another 5% is lost from using the electricity to power the vehicle, bringing the energy efficiency of EVs to 80%.

To quote German automaker BMW, “the overall efficiency in the power-to-vehicle-drive energy chain is therefore only half the level of an electric vehicle.”

The electric vehicle industry has plenty of players in the space, but one that is definitely worth watching is Workhorse Group Inc. (NASDAQ: WKHS). Workhorse Group focuses on providing drone-integrated EVs and telematics systems.

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