Premise: cars and environment
It is clear to everyone that we must change how we live and what we drive to minimise our impact on the planet. But how will the automotive sector evolve?
Many believe that electric cars are the automobile’s future. In recent years, however, the idea of hydrogen-powered cars has been gaining ground. So who will prevail?
The topic of the future of cars is very complex. Factors to consider are:
- the very high vehicle prices;
- the poor availability of charging points (36,752 public points in the UK) and filling stations for hydrogen fuel cells cars (15 in the UK);
- the high price of a battery charging(for electric cars) or a tank refuel(for hydrogen fuel cells cars);
- potential health hazards (combustibility and electric shock risks);
- and, last but not least, engine efficiency.
Each solution has pros and cons. It is important to evaluate them carefully before making a decision that will bring tangible benefits to the planet’s climate while not affecting our wallets too much.
Let’s start with hydrogen cars
How does a hydrogen car work?
Hydrogen cars are called ‘fuel cell cars’ or hydrogen fuel cell cars. Hydrogen fuel cell cars represent a major technological breakthrough in the automotive sector, as they do not pollute. The technology relies on the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity that drives one or more electric motors, enabling efficient driving and zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces as waste products of combustion, water and heat. It would be the ideal fuel in this respect, but… Yeah, there is a but…
If hydrogen is produced from renewable sources, it is truly green. If, on the other hand, it is made from fossil fuels, then it is considered ‘grey hydrogen’. Why ‘grey’? Because obtaining 1 kg of hydrogen from fossil fuels creates 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide, the hydrogen obtained is no longer green. Hydrogen is highly flammable and burns much faster than petrol or diesel (see the Hindenburg accident!), leading to fears of potential explosions in case of accidents or fuel mismanagement during transport. Another problem with hydrogen is transport and storage. To be transported, hydrogen pipelines would have to be built, i.e. huge sums would have to be invested in creating the distribution network.
For industrial use, hydrogen is produced in the same place where it is used. Hydrogen must be compressed in a carbon-fibre tank to high pressures (350-700 bar) to power a car. One could only travel 5 km on one tank if not compressed. Another impediment is the price of green hydrogen, which costs around 15€/kg at the distributor (which can be as low as 9€ in Germany, which has a more extensive network). The advantages of hydrogen are zero pollution, significant autonomy and fast recharging times. The mass distribution of hydrogen cars is being held back by the limitations of the infrastructure for large-scale hydrogen distribution. Fuel cells seem much more convenient for freight transport, which would need huge batteries with long recharging times.
Battery electric cars have an efficiency of 80 per cent, i.e. they transform 80 per cent of the battery’s energy. Hydrogen cars have an efficiency of 50 per cent and thermal engines no more than 40 per cent.
Electric cars emit no exhaust fumes and are very quiet. One advantage of electric cars is that charging, even in these difficult times, if done with a slow AC charger at home or private charging points, costs less than a full tank of petrol or diesel. If charging is done with super-fast chargers on the motorway, the price is higher than petrol or diesel. The current price rise is caused by Europe’s excessive dependence on fossil fuels, particularly Russian gas.
Increasing renewable energy resources would be the best way to escape this mess. This would lower electricity prices over the long term and is the only way Europe can ensure its energy supply in an ever more unpredictable geopolitical environment. Driving long distances with an electric car is more difficult due to the reduced range and long recharging times compared to traditional combustion engines or hydrogen.
The negative points of electric cars are:
- high prices;
- long charging times;
- reduced number of charging stations, but still, many more than hydrogen filling stations;
- reduced efficiency(-18,5%) and longer charging times at low temperatures;
- although it happens rarely, it can catch fire unexpectedly;
- rather reduced autonomy.
According to the Zap-Map database updated to 30th November 2022, the number of public UK charging points by speed was:
- 8926 slow charging points (3-6kW);
- 21114 fast charging points (7-22kW);
- 4501 rapid charging points (25-99kW);
- and 2211 ultra-rapid charging points (100kW+).
However, they do not include the many charge points installed at home or workplace locations, estimated to be more than 400,000.
The batteries in these vehicles have been known to overheat, burst into flames, or even explode. CNN reports that “Lithium-ion batteries, whether they’re in cars, smartphones or automobiles, can catch fire if they’ve been improperly manufactured, damaged or abused or if the software that protects the battery from getting too much or too little electric charge failed to do its job.” Although rare, fires caused by electric car batteries are very difficult to extinguish and risk setting neighbouring cars or other things nearby on fire.
Are electric cars ‘green’? Yes, if electricity from renewable sources is used. If not, pollution is always present, not where the car is used, but where energy is produced from fossil fuels.
Is there a definitive solution?
What does the future hold? We don’t know for sure yet, but electric and hydrogen cars will have a place in the mobility of the future when the technologies are fully developed and the problems minimised. Electric cars will probably replace petrol cars and hydrogen cars the diesel. But this is just a personal hypothesis.
Until then, we will use our old cars together with electric and hybrid cars.
Alternative fuels (e-fuels, also called electro-fuels, powerfuel or Power-to-X (PtX)) should also be mentioned. These could give internal combustion engines a new chance in the energy transition. Still, according to an analysis by www.transportenvironment.org, they will only cover 5 million of the estimated 287 million cars in 2035. They are considered to be highly inefficient because more energy is consumed to produce them than using electric cars directly. In addition, according to another analysis made by the same site, the greenhouse gas reduction with the use of e-fuels would be around 5-7%, not enough to be a viable alternative to traditional fuels.