Electric motor or hydrogen? Here is what the future will be for the car market. Will hydrogen-powered cars or battery-electric cars dominate the automotive market? In reality it depends on the fields of use but not only. The eco-sustainable approach that we try to give to the economy affects not only the production chain itself, therefore the energy sources that will feed it in the years to come. But of course also the characteristics of the products that will be placed on the market, with particular attention inevitably to that of the car.
What direction will the car market go in the next few years? The choice of putting aside fossil fuels and reducing the use of methane, intended as a source of transition towards greener choices. Essentially narrows the circle to two options: hydrogen and electricity .
Thus a question arises which is not actually so easy to answer: which is better hydrogen or electric? This is a topic that has been widely treated lately. It is on the basis of the answer to this question that producers will have to base their choices.
In which of the two alternatives is it worth investing then? First of all, it is necessary to understand which technology makes sense according to the different areas of application , and how this ecological transition can materially be carried out.
The fundamental role of the incentives put in place by governments
To illustrate in detail a rather complex picture is the Coordinator of research on energy policies and climate protection of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Berlin, Felix Matthews, whose activities focus on decarbonization strategies, systems for the exchange of quotas emissions and electricity market regulation.
“If we think about the objective of being carbon neutral by 2050, considering the trading system for emissions allowances, the European Union is currently on track to achieve the intermediate targets of 2030″ explains the former member of the German government commission. on coal and current member of the National Hydrogen Council.
“This applies to CO2 emissions from the energy sector, energy-intensive industry and air traffic within Europe” explains Matthes “but in other sectors, such as transport, construction and agriculture, the situation is not so favorable. , precisely because the trading of emissions quotas is not envisaged “.
“In these cases, the incentive measures put in place by governments, both for cars and for the renovation of buildings, become fundamental” underlines Matthes “the costs of managing vehicles and heating should be more closely linked to CO2 emissions. . We would need a European emissions trading system also for petroleum products “.
For energy with zero impact on the climate, renewable energy sources are needed
To obtain the result of an energy supply that has zero impact on the climate, it is necessary to focus on electricity produced from renewable energy sources . We are therefore talking about wind power and photovoltaics, which means that it is necessary to significantly increase the shares of renewable energy, and this translates into the urgency to develop more rapidly the areas available for solar panel systems and wind turbines.
The energy source with the lowest environmental impact and the lowest costs is electricity, which however must be produced through the use of renewable sources, otherwise we are full stop.
What about hydrogen instead? Couldn’t it be another viable alternative to replace traditional energy sources? In theory, yes, because it would still have a low environmental impact, but it cannot be considered an economic option in the long term due to conversion losses, high initial investment costs and transport costs.
“The best solution? Electrify as much as possible” then says Felix Matthes “using hydrogen where necessary. In the automotive sector it would take the courage to take a clear position and give absolute priority to the electric. It makes no sense to spend too much money on it. other experiments “.
“While for example in the heavy transport sector the best solution has not yet been identified and a research process needs to be organized” explains Matthes who then adds: “in the steel and chemical industry, on the contrary, hydrogen is indispensable. “.
What is the most realistic path
Felix Matthes believes that synthetic fuels can be a solution for those sectors where there are no alternatives, for example in the aviation sector and, at least in part, in the maritime sector. But for large-scale supplies we will have to look elsewhere due to the backwardness of conversion technologies which are still too inefficient but also too expensive in the long term.
To obtain appreciable results, according to Matthes, it is necessary to follow the path of renewables with even more conviction , and he gives us a practical example, that of charging stations for electric cars that “are growing rapidly, and in most cases are adequate. to the current scenario, but efforts must be further intensified to support the development of e-mobility “.
A discourse that applies not only to the car sector, but which, for example, also applies to heating networks. At the same time it is necessary, according to the expert, “to extend the use of hydrogen in industry”.
The situation in which we find ourselves now is that of a system characterized by medium investment costs and high operating costs, and this does not only concern the automobile market , but also the industry.
The future towards which we are moving instead will be characterized by higher initial costs , but with the prospect of obtaining savings over the entire life cycle thanks to the new technology.
The problem of those who “do not have the necessary initial availability to save over time” still remains to be solved as regards the car market, explains Matthews “leasing and rental plans are a good solution; another could be to move a part of the instalment in recharging costs, in order to reduce the initial expense and compensate for it in everyday life, adding a small fee each time it is recharged, considering the management costs and that electricity is much cheaper than fuel “.
Hydrogen cars, that’s why it’s not that simple
The prospects that hydrogen technology is able to offer to the automobile market are discussed in depth in a special by Rinnovabili.it , where it is first specified that “the success of a transformation of the global engineering system as drastic as that which would have hydrogen as its protagonist, depends on its technical feasibility before anything else “.
A focus is carried out on the aspect of efficiency in the automotive sector, through a comparison between the performance of hydrogen vehicles and that of battery electric vehicles , and it is precisely in this way that we should complete the picture and obtain an answer. to the starting question: what is better hydrogen or electric cars?
It is assumed that all the largest international institutions and research centers (Bloomberg, IEA, International Council on Clean Transportation) argue that most wheeled vehicles in the coming decades will be battery-electric.
There would therefore be very little market for hydrogen-powered vehicles , but why? The first weak point of this technology is given by the high level of energy dispersion . In the case of hydrogen, already in the first phase, that of the electrolysis necessary to ensure that the process is effectively carbon neutral, about one fifth of the energy available initially is lost.
But that’s not all, because then the hydrogen must be compressed up to about 700 bar, cooled from -33 to -40 degrees centigrade and stored in special tanks. This path has an efficiency of 90%, then when the fuel (hydrogen) is inside the vehicle it is converted into electricity inside the Fuel Cell with a maximum efficiency achievable in the laboratory of 83%.
In reality, however, today in the market the efficiency reached in this phase is well below that threshold, and is between 40 and 60%. To all this is added the dispersion deriving from the last step, the electrical efficiency of the motor which has a quantifiable efficiency of around 95%.
Starting from these data it is possible to establish that, in the most optimistic of hypotheses, all the efficiencies that represent the energy transformations undergone by the starting electric watts are reduced to 38% of the initial energy quantity. And this is the quantity that is actually used by the FCEV.
Let’s see instead the case of a car powered by electric batteries . We take the same amount of electricity, always generated through renewable sources such as wind power, and try to understand what percentage is actually used by the engine at the end of the whole process.
In this case about 5% is lost in the journey from the turbine to the charging column, mostly due to the dispersion of heat in the cases and transformers of the substations. If we consider a lithium ion battery, we will suffer losses in the charging phase of about 16%, to which is added a dispersion of about 5% of the original energy in the conversion from electrical energy to mechanical energy.
Not taking into account the extra energy that is supplied through the regenerative braking system, we will therefore have a useful power of 74 watts (out of the total of 100 watts initial) for the EV engine, against the 38 watts of the hydrogen car.
It is therefore evident that from the point of view of efficiency the electric car is more efficient than the one powered by hydrogen. In practice, to obtain the same amount of energy, in the case of the hydrogen vehicle, we need about double the starting energy that we would use to power the electric car.
And it is the German carmaker BMW itself that reiterates the concept by stating that “the overall efficiency of hydrogen in the power-to-vehicle energy chain is about half that of battery electric vehicles”.
On Rinnovabili.it, therefore, the net difference is highlighted also from the point of view of the market numbers at the moment, in fact we read that “they also consider plug-in electric (PHEV), there are more than 10 million electric vehicles on the road in all the world . Globally, EV sales rose to 3.2 million in 2020. “
As regards hydrogen vehicles, the same source highlights that “the most optimistic forecasts of the market trend for hydrogen vehicles (FCEV) estimate between 0.4 and 1.87 million in sales by 2025″.
To dispel any residual doubts then come the opinions of another large German car manufacturer, Volkswagen , which in a report on the subject claims that “as far as cars are concerned, everything seems to lean towards battery-powered electric cars, and practically nothing for the ‘hydrogen”.
In short, the direction that the car market will take could actually be that of the electric car, as long as it is possible to restart production and resolve the energy and raw materials crisis.