Lithium battery or fuel cell – whose future is it?

Attempt at a stocktaking and a forecast

by Winfried Pogorzelski

Everybody talks about the blessing of battery-powered electric cars. For some time now, all the well-known car manufacturers have been offering corresponding models for some time now, from small cars to mid-range cars, luxury limousines to the so-called SUVs, the off-road sedans that now populate our roads unmissable. Anyone who read the newspapers in spring with a certain curiosity for this topic will have hardly missed the fact that there are more and more reports about another propulsion technology, namely the fuel cell. It generates electricity from hydrogen and oxygen and uses it to drive an electric motor. A vehicle operated in this way does not emit pollutants, but water vapour. Not only is the air not polluted, it is even purified. Is a long-cherished dream finally coming true here, or should everything be a little more complicated after all?

It is astonishing that for a long time so little was heard and read about the hydrogen-powered fuel cell, while people have been working diligently and successfully behind the scenes on the development of this technology for many years. Few may be aware that in Switzerland, for example, there is already a hydrogen filling station network – albeit a modest one – and some trucks are on the road between Lake Constance and Lake Geneva for major Swiss companies such as Coop, Migros and Fenaco.

Battery-powered electric cars: technology, manufacture, performance

Instead of an internal combustion engine, a common electric car is powered by an electric motor, which – like mobile phones and notebooks, by the way – is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Such a battery can be recharged again and again over a long period of time, so that total ranges of between 50,000 and 100,000 km per vehicle and battery can be achieved. Electric cars are very pleasant to drive: they have a good acceleration, drive in only one gear and therefore consist of far fewer individual parts than a petrol-driven vehicle, which makes them less in need of repair and thus cheaper to maintain. On-site, they produce no emissions and run almost silently.
  Lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and platinum are needed to manufacture the batteries. The worldwide deposits of these materials are likely to be sufficient for a long time. When all factors are taken into account, it has been calculated that the environmental friendliness of a vehicle becomes fully apparent from a mileage of 50,000 km. When a battery needs to be replaced, it can still be used as a stationary energy supplier for a while; afterwards, its components are recyclable.

Disadvantages of battery-powered electric vehicles

If you list the disadvantages of these vehicles, you name exactly the areas that are constantly being worked on at full speed to improve them: too few charging stations, relatively long recharging time, too short a range (currently about 500 km on average), costly disposal or reuse of the batteries, limited range of vehicles (so far mainly vehicles from the mid-range upwards), great danger in serious accidents because a fire in the battery cannot be extinguished on site (the vehicle has to be immersed in a pool of water), high purchase price.
  Moreover, after the dependence on oil and coal, humans seem to be moving into a new dependence on raw materials that are not even known to the general public and that are largely extracted in Latin America and Asia with serious consequences for humans and the environment; their final disposal is costly. In the background of the strong propagation and the downright boom in the production of these vehicles, political and economic interests also seem to play a certain role, at least that is the conclusion of a French film entitled “Environmental sinner E-car?”.

Functioning of a fuel cell car

On the other hand, we have heard very little about the development of this variant of an electric vehicle. That changed this spring. Instead of a lithium-ion battery, these vehicles have a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.
  Hydrogen achieves a very high energy density in the gaseous and deep-cooled aggregate state in which it is also stored at the filling stations. In the process of energy production, hydrogen and oxygen are brought together; they react with each other to produce water (this is the reverse of the electrolysis of water, which produces hydrogen and oxygen). This electrochemical process produces heat and electrical energy. The latter drives the electric motor that sets the vehicle in motion. Like the battery-powered electric car, this type of car also produces no emissions during operation. The range of heavy-duty vehicles is greater than that of battery-powered ones, eliminating the need for lengthy recharging. Filling a tank with hydrogen takes hardly any longer than refilling with fossil fuel.

Hydrogen – a reliable energy supplier also in other aspects

The production and use of hydrogen have a future, even apart from car propulsion by fuel cells. It is already used for many purposes, such as in the food industry, in the desulphurisation of fuel or as a fuel for soot-free flames. Also, against the background of the Paris UN Climate Agreement of 2015, the production of hydrogen is to be promoted worldwide so that it can be an environmentally friendly energy supplier not only for mobility, but also for important industries such as chemicals and steel. If the electricity demand is generated from non-constant renewable sources such as sun and wind, hydrogen technology can provide secure power supply during a so called dark lull, when neither the sun is shining nor the wind is blowing.

Disadvantages of the vehicle propulsion system with a fuel cell

At present, 98 % of hydrogen is still produced from hydrocarbons such as natural gas, crude oil and coal. Around 40 % of this is produced as a by-product in chemical processes such as crude oil refining. Production and storage of the element require a lot of energy, and this energy must come from renewable sources if the eco-balance of the fuel cell-powered vehicle is to be positive. Hydrogen is stored and transported in gaseous form under high pressure or in liquid form at minus 253 degrees Celsius in extremely insulated double-walled tanks. The use in automobiles requires high safety requirements with regard to tightness, fire and so-called burst safety, so that safe driving is guaranteed.

The future has already begun: No vibrations as with the conventional

Diesel lorries, smooth and delay-free operation of the five-speed converter automatic, impressive torque development, minimal driving noise in the cabin even at top speed on the motorway – with words like these, long-distance drivers rave about lorries powered by hydrogen and fuel cells.
  Few people are aware that hydrogen technology has already been used in Switzerland for some time, namely in heavy goods transport (traffic): since October 2020, the first seven 36-tonne fuel cell lorries from the South Korean brand Hyundai have been in service in Switzerland for Coop, Migros, Fenaco and other large companies. This pioneering act is made possible by the network “Förderverein H2 Mobilität Schweiz” (in cooperation with Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility with the Swiss start-up H2 Energy), to which filling station operators and transport companies belong and which wants to set up CO2-emission-free motorised individual transport within the framework of a closed hydrogen cycle, which must not only be economical but also environmentally friendly: The hydrogen is produced only with electricity from renewable energy sources. In March 2021, 46 lorries were in operation, which can already access eight hydrogen filling stations (AVIA, Agrola, Coop) between St. Gallen and Lausanne.
  The expansion of the refuelling station network is progressing: five are currently in operation along the east-west axis and enable the trucks to be used throughout the entire Central Plateau between Lake Constance and Lake Geneva. A fully loaded 36-tonne lorry with a range of around 400 km can already travel from Lausanne to St. Gallen without stopping to refuel. By 2023, a nationwide infrastructure should be in place throughout Switzerland.
  Hydrogen propulsion is now also an option for rail transport: the French group Alstom, the world’s second largest company in the manufacture of rail vehicles, has developed a hydrogen train that can be used in place of diesel locomotives where railway lines cannot be electrified well because of their routing. A prototype experienced its premiere in northern Germany between Cuxhafen and Buxtehude during an eighteen-month test phase starting in 2018. Afterwards, such a train was also tested in the Netherlands and in our neighbouring country Austria, where it proved itself under the most difficult topographical conditions.

A look into the future: Climate protection sets the agenda

Martin Schatzmann, specialist editor of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” for the mobility department, expresses optimism: “Hydrogen conquers commercial vehicles” – the title of a recently published article.
  This year, the range of commercial vehicles such as delivery vehicles and vans produced by Renault and the Stellantis automotive holding company – consisting of Citroen, Opel, Peugeot and other brands – will be expanded. Hyundai, Toyota and Renault also produce passenger cars with fuel cells.
  For both alternative drive types – lithium-ion battery and fuel cell – optimisation efforts are in full swing: work is constantly being done to improve the vehicles, make them more user-friendly, more environmentally friendly in production and operation and, last but not least, more cost-effective and to ensure that their components can be recycled.
  The end of the combustion engine seems inevitable; the future belongs to the new drive systems presented here, which will complement each other. The most important trigger for this probably irreversible development is likely to be the decisions taken at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, where the participating states pledged to do everything in their power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the period between 2045 and 2060 in order to bring global warming down to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This ambitious goal not only determines the discussions about our future mobility, but also to a large extent the current political debates and election campaigns. •


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Forster, Christof. “Wie ein SVP-Nationalrat das Klima mit Wasserstoff retten will” (How an SVP National Councillor wants to save the climate with hydrogen); in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 3 May 2021

Förderverein H2 Mobilität Schweiz (headquarters: Zurich, 21 well-known Swiss companies are members)

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