Hydrogen or electric cars? Which one to choose?
The history of hydrogen cars
Hydrogen or electric cars? How do hydrogen cars work and what are the advantages?
Impact of hydrogen cars on the environment
What are the costs and benefits of using hydrogen cars?
Why is hydrogen still an unpopular fuel?
Advantages of hydrogen cars
Disadvantages of hydrogen cars
Why are electric cars more popular than hydrogen cars?
It seems that hydrogen or electric cars are the future. This means that the continuation of the development of internal combustion engines makes little sense at present. Many manufacturers are increasingly declaring the abandonment of diesel or gasoline engine designs in favor of cars powered by alternative energy sources. Either electricity or hydrogen are involved. Hydrogen or electric cars? Which have more advantages?
Hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe, plays a key role in the development of the hydrogen cars that can be produced today. The initial observations of this element were made by the alchemist and physician Paracelsus from Switzerland. Henry Cavendish in 1766 recognized hydrogen as a separate substance. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists conducted further experiments on this element. NASA, on the other hand, was working on the use of hydrogen cells, and there were also attempts to use them in agricultural tractors.
The first motor vehicle, similar to a car and fueled with hydrogen, was a Mercedes-Benz bus. In 1978, the German manufacturer introduced Necar, or New Electric Car. This vehicle had a huge hydrogen tank. Since the 1990s, hydrogen-powered buses have also operated in some German cities.
There are currently four hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market. Hyundai was the first to introduce a hydrogen car to the market. This type of drive was installed in one of its popular SUVs, namely the Hyundai Tucson. Hyundai Tucson FCEV debuted in 2013. More models appeared on the market, such as Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo and Honda Clarity. In addition, companies such as Mercedes and BMW have experimented with introducing cars with conventional internal combustion engines that use hydrogen-derived electricity or use hydrogen as a fuel burned in the engine compartment. Examples of such models are the BMW Hydrogen 7, BMW Hydrogen X5 and Mercedes GLC F-Cell.
Hydrogen cars can be divided into two types. The first type are units that work similarly to internal combustion engines. In these units, hydrogen is stored under high pressure in a tank. It is then injected into the engine compartment, causing explosions and expansion. Thanks to this, the pistons and crankshaft work like in a regular gasoline engine. Toyota is one of the main producers of this type of hydrogen units. They are quieter and generate less vibrations, and burning hydrogen does not emit toxic substances. The product of the reaction here is hydrogen and water.
The second type of hydrogen units is more similar to electric motors. Such units have been used by NASA and use hydrogen fuel cells. In hydrogen cars of this type, there are no large batteries, but fuel cells are used instead. Hydrogen is oxidized in these cells, and the process separates into cations and anions. The movement of the anions generates a voltage that powers the drive unit. The big advantage of this solution is lower weight, because the hydrogen tank weighs much less than heavy batteries. In addition, the production of hydrogen tanks and fuel cells has a lower environmental impact than the production and disposal of batteries used in electric cars. The only disadvantage of this solution is the need to warm up the engine before starting work, which requires a short wait before starting the vehicle.
Hydrogen cars are of great importance for environmental protection, as they are an alternative to internal combustion engines, reducing the emission of harmful substances. The aim of the producers of such cars is to create an alternative fuel that will enable similar operation to internal combustion cars without emitting harmful compounds into the atmosphere.
However, there is a problem with the production of hydrogen, which is used as fuel for these vehicles. This process requires a huge amount of energy, which can increase the demand for energy mainly from fossil fuels, which generate large amounts of harmful substances. In addition, there are different types of hydrogen, depending on the production methods used. so-called green hydrogen is emission-free, but blue and gray hydrogen are produced by non-ecological processes. Most of the world’s hydrogen is produced by methane reforming or coal gasification. This involves the emission of greenhouse gases and other harmful substances.
For hydrogen to be fully ecological, we should primarily produce green or blue hydrogen. Carbon dioxide is also produced during its production, but this gas can be reused. In addition to the problems associated with hydrogen production, hydrogen cars themselves are very environmentally friendly. They do not require heavy and difficult to recycle batteries. All they need is fuel cells and a hydrogen tank, which is very light – a full tank can weigh only a few kilograms. In the combustion process, the only side effect is water, which is removed from the system, and hydrogen cars do not emit any other harmful substances.
In the discussion on electric cars, arguments about their convenience in everyday use are often raised. One of the frequently mentioned disadvantages is the need for frequent charging, which can be a nuisance, especially if we do not have access to fast chargers, which can be expensive. Related to this problem is also the range, which can be hundreds of kilometers, which means the need for frequent charging, for example when traveling on vacation.
In the case of hydrogen cars, this problem largely disappears. Refueling takes much less time, as filling a 5 kg hydrogen tank, for example in the Toyota Mirai, takes from 5 to a maximum of 10 minutes. This amount of fuel is enough to drive up to 500 kilometers, which is comparable to stopping to refuel a regular combustion engine car. Even the price is not a deterrent, because in Germany it is about PLN 40 per kilogram, which gives about 100 kilometers of range, and this price is yet to come down. Electric cars are produced by virtually all car manufacturers, and most countries realize that ensuring favorable conditions for the use of such vehicles is crucial in order to reduce the emission of harmful substances.
In the case of hydrogen cars, the scale is much smaller, as there are only a few models on the market so far: mainly Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. There are practically no hydrogen refueling stations in Poland, and if there are, they are mainly private stations serving public transport buses or belonging to specific companies. In addition, there are no plans to build more hydrogen stations, as the transportation and storage of hydrogen is quite complicated.
The European Union and countries such as Germany, France and the Benelux countries hope to make hydrogen more convenient in the future. There are plans to increase the share of hydrogen-powered buses and trucks and to expand the network of refueling stations. Further development also includes greater use of hydrogen in passenger cars. However, this will be a time-consuming and costly process. In Poland, by 2030 Orlen plans to build 50 places where it will be possible to refuel a car with hydrogen, but a very promising Polish company is Simple H2, which has created and patented a unique graphene electrolyser, used to obtain green hydrogen of 99.999% purity directly at stations. Simple H2 has a second patent for an independent hydrogen generation station with a hydrogen storage and refueling station H35 and H70 with an electrolysis system. Perhaps and we hope that Simple H2 will conquer the world with its solutions.
Hydrogen technologies are promising in theory. As a green fuel, hydrogen can power passenger cars without generating any pollution, and it also has a faster refueling process than charging electric cars. So it seems that hydrogen should replace electric cars. However, there are many problems with this technology. Hydrogen is considered the fuel of the future by manufacturers such as Toyota and Hyundai, but not only by them. On the other hand, Volkswagen says hydrogen will never be widely used.
The main problem with hydrogen is that the development of this technology and infrastructure would take many years, perhaps even decades, to make it economically viable and environmentally beneficial. That is a very long time, especially when most manufacturers and organizations, such as the European Union, are now pushing for a rapid reduction in our carbon footprint. Theoretically, the solution is electric cars, which are already quite widely available, and the charging infrastructure is constantly developing.
Hydrogen is also criticized for another reason – its production. When it is produced using energy from renewable sources, the so-called “green hydrogen”, which is emission-free and considered a completely clean and ecological fuel. However, most hydrogen is produced using technologies that generate many greenhouse gases, which is known as “grey hydrogen”, or as “blue hydrogen”, which also releases some pollutants into the atmosphere, but on a smaller scale than gray hydrogen. Although these problems can be solved thanks to the patents of the previously described Polish company Simple H2.
In conclusion, hydrogen cars have many advantages. First of all, they are completely emission-free, because they operate on an electric principle, but they do not store energy, but generate it on an ongoing basis, which is harmless to the environment. The only by-product of hydrogen cars is water, which is a huge advantage. In addition, unlike electric cars, hydrogen cars do not require large, heavy and unsustainable batteries, and instead use lighter fuel cells and a hydrogen tank.
Another advantage is the weight and comfort of use. To consider this an advantage of hydrogen cars, we have to hypothetically assume that the infrastructure for electric and hydrogen cars is equally developed. In this case, refueling a hydrogen car takes just a few to a maximum of ten minutes, and a full tank with a capacity of 5/6 kilograms provides a range of over 500 kilometers. In addition, this range does not require the use of heavy batteries, and the hydrogen tank itself is lightweight.
Hydrogen is also a safe fuel. It is flammable, but it is difficult to ignite spontaneously. It requires very high temperatures, and hydrogen cars are designed so that in the event of a tank failure, hydrogen is released through controlled paths without entering the passenger cabin.
The biggest drawback of hydrogen cars is their limited availability and the lack of a sufficient number of refueling stations. This is a serious problem, especially in Poland, where there are only a dozen stations, most of which belong to cities and are used to refuel hydrogen buses driving around the city. An example is Telewizja Polsat, which has its own portable refueling station for its vehicles, such as Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai.
The environmental aspect should also be considered. Cars are considered a big problem for environmental protection, which is why more and more stringent emission standards are being introduced, which can only be met by using electric, hybrid or hydrogen cars. Nevertheless, the fact that electricity must be generated is often overlooked, and in Poland it mainly comes from coal-fired power plants. In addition, the hydrogen production process also leaves a large carbon footprint.
However, the biggest problem with hydrogen cars is something else entirely. While there are many electric cars on the market, and this technology is developing dynamically and attracting investments from many manufacturers, investments in the development of hydrogen drives are limited to a few. As a result, this technology is developing much more slowly, and even increasing the expenditure on its development would require a lot of time and resources. It is estimated that the development of this technology could take decades, while environmentalists strive to find solutions that work much faster.
Electric cars are gaining an advantage not only due to the better quality of the car, but mainly due to infrastructure and accessibility. Currently, electric cars are becoming a more and more reasonable alternative to combustion vehicles, while hydrogen cars are only available in a small number of models. In addition, the charging infrastructure for electric cars is much more developed.
If we compare the characteristics of the cars themselves, the differences become smaller. In order to make a comparison, however, it must be assumed that both types of vehicles have the same operating conditions, such as an extensive network of charging and refueling stations, as well as market availability.
Electric cars are much more energy efficient. Unlike hydrogen cars, which have large losses in the hydrogen production stage, electric cars use even more than 70% of the initial energy. This means that electric cars use as much energy as hydrogen cars lose. This is one of the biggest advantages of electric cars over hydrogen cars.
However, electric cars have some disadvantages related to range and charging time. Hydrogen cars can be refueled in a few minutes and driven from 500 to even 600 kilometers, while fully charging the battery of an electric car using the fastest chargers takes at least several dozen minutes. Poland still lacks an extensive network of fast chargers, which further extends the charging time for electric cars.
When we compare the impact on the natural environment, the situation becomes more complicated. Both of these technologies are theoretically emission-free while driving, but you need to consider where the fuel and batteries used in electric cars come from. The production of batteries generates a lot of carbon dioxide and environmental concerns because they are heavy and require a lot of energy. In addition, the electricity used to charge electric cars may come from unclean energy sources.
Hydrogen cars are also not as clean as you might think. Hydrogen production is very energy-intensive and can generate a lot of carbon dioxide and other harmful compounds. For example, in China, hydrogen is produced by gasification of coal. Nevertheless, both electric cars and hydrogen cars have a positive impact on reducing smog in cities, which often comes from a large number of combustion vehicles