Electric Cars vs Hydrogen Cars: Which is the future?

Electric looks set to become the normal, but hydrogen is making inroads. We explain why both have a role.

Electric, hydrogen, even prolonging the life of petrol and diesel vehicles using synthetic fuels: these are all solutions either being implemented or under discussion at the moment. Just as petrol beat electric early in the last century, it’s likely that we will again see one form of propulsion dominate, most likely electric, but what about hydrogen?

If you listen to the ‘EVangelists' hydrogen is a waste of time and energy, and no-one should be bothering to look at it all. Most experts however agree that there is no silver bullet when it comes to cleaner motoring. Electric vehicles (EVs) will not suit everyone; think of those who live in rural communities in Africa, Australia or Russia. EV technology will improve, driving range will increase, but hydrogen could be a solution for many and there’s more to the technology than just powering cars.

So, what is it and how will it be implemented?

Hydrogen is the core element of 75 per cent of matter in the universe, so there’s lots of it about, but we can’t just scoop it out of the air. It has to be extracted from water by using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This can be done on a large scale at the equivalent of a refinery and piped, or it can be created on site, such as at a filling station. There are questions relating to the energy used to create it though, hence we have things like grey hydrogen using fossil-fuel generated electricity and green hydrogen, using renewable electricity.

Use the latter and you could have a wind turbine or solar panels creating the power to run the chemical process that creates hydrogen and here’s where things make sense for many people, because one of the advantages of hydrogen is familiarity. An EV requires charging, whereas a hydrogen fuel cell car is refuelled at a pump on a forecourt in a similar way to how you refill your car today. At the moment it’s considerably more expensive, but a fuel cell car will generally travel further than an electric one between ‘fill ups’. Of course, the range of an EV is increasing all the time as the technology improves, so the race is on.

Will hydrogen have a place then?

The likely answer to this is yes, but it will all be about use cases. If you live and work in or around Dublin, an EV will do you fine, but if you live on the west coast and travel longer distances regularly then hydrogen could be a great solution, provided the infrastructure exists, which it doesn’t at the moment.

Currently there are no hydrogen refuelling stations in Ireland, but there are plans for up to 80 by the end of the decade. Many of these are likely to be dedicated to commercial transport, for truck or bus companies, although it’s possible car drivers will be allowed access to them too and trials are already underway for hydrogen buses in Dublin and Belfast. We could also see hydrogen refuelling pumps on the forecourts of existing fuel stations, something that is already the case in the UK and some other parts of Europe.

What hydrogen cars are already available?

The short answer is that in Ireland there currently aren’t any hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market, but should the infrastructure be implemented then that could change. BMW is once again looking seriously at it, as are Land Rover and Bentley. Hyundai has its Nexo fuel cell SUV and the biggest protagonist for the technology is Toyota, which earlier this year launched the second generation of its Mirai fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV).

It’s more than just the car for Toyota though, as it sees an FCEV as being part of a wider hydrogen society where homes, businesses and other forms of transport are all powered by it. The Japanese company has invested in a shipping company to transport the fuel as well as numerous other forms of infrastructure, even going so far as to create Woven City, an entire city run on hydrogen near the base of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The argument is therefore not whether hydrogen is the best option for powering our cars, but whether hydrogen is an option for powering our society. That’s a much bigger topic but in places where it tops the agenda, so too could the fuel cell electric vehicle.

Which technology will win?

The train of investment has already left the station and the switch to battery-electric is a much quicker way to meet the many different emission targets of governments around the world, so the smart money is on EVs. There are questions around mining for batteries, potential supply issues and the real environmental impact of the lifecycle of an EV, but it is technology we are starting to accept as the future normal. However, there are advantages to hydrogen in certain sectors, such as commercial vehicles and societal infrastructure, so don’t be surprised if you see it beginning to matter even more.