Green hydrogen fans have been getting plenty of love from energy observers in recent months, but trouble looms ahead. A new cost-cutting fuel cell breakthrough has the potential to cast a new wave of hydrogen fuel cell EVs upon the roads of the Earth. If the market for green H2 doesn’t keep pace, those new cars could be running on fossil gas, because that’s where pretty much all the hydrogen comes from right now.
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV Breakthrough — Cheap As A Gasmobile?
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen fuel cell EVs are zero emission electric drive vehicles, just like their battery powered cousins.
The main difference is that batteries are recharged with electricity, while fuel cells are refueled with hydrogen. The fuel cell generates electricity on-the-go though a reaction between hydrogen and ambient oxygen, and that’s where the new fuel cell breakthrough comes in.
The hydrogen reaction requires a catalyst, and right now platinum is the catalyst of choice, and platinum is very expensive, which bumps up the overall cost of a fuel cell EV.
To bring costs down, automakers either have to find a different catalyst or find a platinum catalyst that uses a lot less platinum.
A very large research team based at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark has taken the latter route. Their new fuel cell catalyst only requires about the same amount of platinum used in gasmobiles, which according to our friends over at Specialty Metals comes out to about 3-7 grams for a typical catalytic converter.
In contrast, the typical fuel cell currently uses about 50 grams of platinum. So getting that number down to 3-7 grams is a pretty big deal.
Other factors are also in play, but if the general idea is to get the cost of a fuel cell EV down to where it can compete with a typical gasmobile, cutting down on platinum would be a good place to start.
The usual design approach is to layer platinum over a carbon base, but that requires more platinum in order to counterbalance the destabilizing effect of the carbon.
Instead, the University of Denmark team developed a platinum-cobalt nanowire architecture. The nanowire structure provides for more stability while also increasing the area of surface available for the reaction, which is the key to an efficient catalyst.
For all the details, check out the team’s recently published fuel cell catalyst study in the journal Nature Materials under the title, “Self-supported Pt–CoO networks combining high specific activity with high surface area for oxygen reduction.”
More And Better (And Cheaper) Green Hydrogen
The next step is to scale up the labwork, so don’t hold your breath waiting for that new wave of fuel cell EVs to break. It could take a few years. However, the research team has already let word slip that they are “in talks with the automotive industry about how this breakthrough can be rolled out in practice,” so things could start moving along at a rapid clip sooner rather than later.
That lends more urgency to transition from fossil-sourced hydrogen to green hydrogen from renewable resources. Currently, 95% of the global hydrogen supply comes from fossil gas.
Renewable H2 can be produced from biogas, but much of the attention today is focused on electrolysis, in which an electrical current “splits” hydrogen from water. For truly green hydrogen, that electricity should come from sustainable resources like wind, solar, and other renewables.
Getting the cost of electrolysis to come down is the challenge, and in that regard some interesting developments have popped up on the CleanTechnica radar.
Earlier this week our friends over at Wood MacKenzie dropped a new report on the cost of renewable hydrogen. Taking note that the pipeline for renewable hydrogen projects has skyrocketed from just 3.5 gigawatts to more than 15 gigawatts in less than a year, Wood Mackenzie declared that “the 2020s is likely to be the decade of hydrogen.”
Specifically, Wood Mackenzie is looking at a 64% drop in the cost of green hydrogen over the next 20 years. Cost parity with fossil hydrogen could be achieved in Germany and certain other markets by 2030, with the rest of the world catching up around the 2040 mark.
Helping things along for green hydrogen would be a steep climb in the cost of fossil gas, aka “grey” hydrogen, which WoodMac forecasts at 82%.
As for so-called blue hydrogen, that refers to a greenwashed version of gray hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is actually grey hydrogen from fossil gas, except it is produced in a system with carbon capture, so it gets to have a different color.
If that sounds like the work of a desperate public relations campaign, it probably is. WoodMac has some bad news for blue hydrogen fans, forecasting a 59% cost increase by 2040.
“The success of blue hydrogen is linked to the success of CCS technology, which has been plagued by high costs and project cancellations. Like grey hydrogen, the forecasted cost profile is largely determined by natural gas prices,” WoodMac points out.
Adding to the mix is the growing interest of legacy oil and gas companies in green hydrogen. For example, Shell has a hand in a sustainable H2-plus-wind-and-solar demo project in the works for the Netherlands, and BP is dipping into a solar-plus-hydrogen proposal in Australia.
Green Hydrogen + FCEVs + BEVs, Too
So, where does this leave fans of hydrogen fuel cell cars? Probably better off than they were five years ago. FCEVs have been slow to catch on, but leading auto manufacturers continue to sustain interest in the technology.
The hydrogen supercar field has also been heating up, which will spark more awareness about fuel cell performance among the driving public.
In an interesting twist, renewable hydrogen is also playing a role in a new off road BEV racing series called Extreme E. The series will deploy renewable H2 to help boost its off grid battery fast-charging stations, which just goes to show there may be some common ground for hydrogen and BEVs after all.
Even if costs do come down for fuel cell EVs, they still have a long way to go before catching up with BEVs, at least in terms of capturing the market for single owner passenger cars. One limiting factor is the scant availability of hydrogen fuel stations, compared to the rapidly expanding EV charging network and the convenience of home or workplace charging.
In the near future, FCEVs probably have a better chance at edging into the fleet vehicle market, since many fleet owners already plan routes around their own facilities and other existing fuel depots.
Fuel cell technology is also being eyeballed for heavy duty transportation, including long haul trucks, watercraft, and locomotives. The railway connection is especially interesting because it enables the diesel-to-electricity switch without having to build new transmission lines and other electrical infrastructure.
Circling back around to the coexistence idea, diversity in the field of zero emission mobility should be a good thing. Depending on regional needs, fuel cell EVs could provide an alternative that helps relieve congestion at public or shared BEV charging stations. They also provide a zero emission alternative for drivers who can’t access home or workplace BEV charging.
In addition, green hydrogen can be produced during off-peak electricity demand hours, so fuel cell EV drivers are less likely to compete with BEVs for space on the grid during peak daytime hours.
Just a thought. If you have any ideas about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
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Image: Fuel cell car via US Department of Energy.