Fuel cells: the need for zero emission long distance vehicles

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All the major players in the automotive industry are in the race to develop and deploy zero-emission vehicles: a tumultuous shift in powertrain technology is underway. The new IDTechEx report, “Electric fuel cell vehicles 2022-2042”, analyzes the role of fuel cells in road vehicles. Fuel cell systems have potential as a technology for on-road transportation applications that need to be zero-emission, but where the demands of daily driving cannot be met by a battery-only powertrain.

Road transport is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in each country. For example, cars, light commercial vehicles, trucks and buses are responsible, in total, for around 93% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with inland transport in the EU. Similarly, in the United States, on-road vehicles generate approximately 85% of domestic transportation emissions. This high proportion places the sector in the crosshairs of policy makers.

It is recognized that almost total decarbonisation of road transport is necessary for countries to meet their 2050 climate targets set under the Paris Agreement. Equally important is growing recognition of the impact of traffic emissions on local air quality and the health of urban populations. Large cities are increasingly seeking to ban or tax the entry of combustion engine vehicles into city centers, which has an impact on the technological choice of public transport, delivery vehicles and taxi fleets as well as passenger cars. Zero-emission solutions are needed for all segments of road vehicles and the technology will need to be able to meet the daily duty cycle of these applications, however arduous it may be.

As battery-electric solutions lead the transition to zero-emission powertrains, the energy density of today’s automotive lithium-ion batteries means that the daily range of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) is limited to the times the maximum weight of the batteries that can be carried by a vehicle and the space available for the 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 by means of a chemical reaction between hydrogen fuel (stored at high pressure in tanks inside the vehicle) and purified intake air. Fuel cell systems can offer higher energy density than battery-only powertrains and therefore provide greater range for the same weight.

This advantage, combined with the ability to refuel hydrogen faster than the time required to charge a large Li-ion battery, means that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer operational flexibility closer to gasoline vehicles. current combustion engine that the BEV cannot offer. In some applications, the FCEV may be the only viable zero-emission powertrain solution.

Major manufacturers such as Toyota, Ford, Honda, GM, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW have invested heavily over the past 30 years in advancing fuel cell technologies, and the technology is commercially available. since 2014, when Toyota started serial production of its Mirai FCEV.

However, for passenger cars, the culmination of these efforts is the reality that in 2021 only two major OEMs, Toyota and Hyundai, have FCEV cars in production, and less than 10,000 FCEVs were sold in 2020. Vehicles battery-powered electric vehicles in comparison, the development of which began in earnest at the same time as the FCEV, which sold more than 3 million units in 2020. FC passenger cars pursue a moving target, which will be difficult to catch, BEV technologies s ‘improving rapidly in this segment. While BEV powertrains have raised concerns about the need to replace batteries during the operational life of the vehicle, and there have been several vehicle recalls related to battery fires, FCEV cars will face challenges. similar issues as fuel cell system technology matures. Hyundai announced in August this year that it was recalling 15,000 NEXOs (all NEXOs sold before June 2021) to resolve a knocking issue. They also announced a “buy-back” program for NEXOs that require fuel cell replacement before 250,000 km. Hyundai’s quality flaws are a setback for supporters of FCEV cars, given that the NEXO has accounted for about half of global FCEV car sales.

The range and refueling advantage of the FCEV means that heavy-duty applications, such as long-haul trucking or high-mileage bus operations, which would require a very large battery with a battery-only architecture, likely offer greater opportunity for fuel cell technology in the short term. The IDTechEx report explores the deployment of fuel cell vehicles in these sectors and examines the progress made. Hyundai, for example, is conducting commercial trials in Switzerland with a fleet of 46 FCEV trucks, with plans to increase it to 1,600 trucks by 2025. They also announced upcoming FCEV truck projects in the United States. United and orders for 4,000 FCEV trucks in China. There is also some penetration of FCEVs in the bus market, with over 150 fuel cell buses operating in Europe, 65 in the United States, and over 3,000 in China. A growing order book of FCEV buses suggests that demand is increasing, at least at a pilot-scale test level.

Fuel cell electric vehicles may have a role to play in meeting climate change targets, however, there are still significant hurdles to overcome before low emission fuel cell vehicles are commercially feasible. Not least is the need for low-cost production of renewable green hydrogen, which is essential to making the FCEV both economically viable and providing the low-emission benchmarks on which the technology is promoted.

The high cost of producing green hydrogen and its relative scarcity mean that it is currently not economically viable as a transportation fuel. 95% of the hydrogen produced today is generated from fossil fuels, which, while cheap, 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 deployment of the FCEV in countries ready to commit to substantial infrastructure financing. There is also an inherent inefficiency in using green hydrogen as a transportation fuel. Due to efficiency losses turning renewable electricity into pressurized hydrogen fuel and then into electricity to power the vehicle, renewable electricity is likely to have more impact on reducing emissions when deployed. in battery electric vehicles.

The IDTechEx report, “Electric fuel cell vehicles 2022-2042Details the current state of 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 production, and carbon capture and storage. IDTechEx provides its analysis of the technical and economic challenges of fuel cell deployment in various road transport applications and presents its independent 20-year forecast for the future of fuel cell road vehicles, including unit sales forecasts, fuel cell demand forecasts; and market value forecasts.

The Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles report is part of IDTechEx’s broader mobility research portfolio, which tracks electric vehicle adoption, battery trends, range and demand on land, at sea. and in the air. Help you navigate whatever awaits you. Learn more about www.IDTechEx.com/Research/EV.


Author: Dr David Wyatt, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx


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