Battery Vehicles Vs Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

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The electric vehicle market has changed considerably in its relatively short existence, with innovative solutions being developed regularly. What all started with hybrid vehicles has progressed year on year, becoming greener and greener with the introduction of plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles (BEV) and now hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV).

But what’s the difference between battery vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells? And what does this mean for the future of the electric vehicle market? Read on to find out all this and more.

Differences between electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells

hydrogen fuel cell car

While batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are just different ways in powering an electric vehicle, their nature, operation and availability is starkly different.

Electricity storage vs production

electric car

The main difference between hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries are the ways in which they handle electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce their own electricity from hydrogen gas, whereas electric car batteries store electricity from the grid. This makes fuel cells more expensive as they are required to convert and store energy rather than simply store it like in lithium-ion batteries.

Efficiency

Both batteries and fuel cells suffer some form of efficiency loss from operation, which means that neither operate at 100% efficiency.

In fuel cells, pure hydrogen is converted to stored energy which is a knowingly inefficient process and results in an average of 60% energy efficiency. On the other hand, in electric batteries, efficiency is lost through recharging, converting DC power to AC power and battery leakage (the process where batteries lose charge over time), which results in 75% energy efficiency.

Charging vs refuelling

Hydrogen fuel cars

Hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries also refuel differently. Rather than leaving your vehicle to charge as you would with an electric battery, with a hydrogen fuel cell you refuel with hydrogen fuel, similar to how you would refuel a petrol or diesel engine. This makes refueling a hydrogen fuel cell a lot faster than recharging an electric battery, as refuelling only takes a few minutes compared to the several hours of recharging.

Running costs

Another key difference between the two are their operation costs. BEVs operate at around 3p per mile due to the affordability of grid electricity, whereas FCEVs operate at around 16p per mile due to the price of hydrogen fuel. However, the costs of fuel cell refuelling is likely to drop once the infrastructure becomes as widely available as electric recharging. 

It’s worth factoring in insurance when looking at overall running costs as battery vehicles and fuel cell vehicles are likely to be insured differently due to their differing components. Insurance for BEVs factors in things like battery replacement and any home charging equipment, which doesn’t apply to FCEVs. At this stage it’s difficult to assess the costs of insurance for FCEVs because of their infancy but given their expensive nature it’s likely to be quite steep. That said, insurance rates are calculated from a range of factors including gender, age, location, profession and marital status, so rates will vary from person to person. To find out how insurance differs between the two, get a quote from a provider.

electric car charging

Batteries vs fuel cells on paper

Now that we know the key differences between batteries and fuel cells, it’s time to see how they compare on paper.

Cost and choice

Cost and choice of vehicle is probably the key aspect that sets the two power options apart. Due to the relatively recent introduction of FCEVs, there are only two on the market, compared to the multitude of BEVs currently available. This means if you’re looking for a FCEV, you’re left with the choice of either the Hyundai Nexo or the Toyota Mirai and it will set you back at least £973 or £1118 a month respectively.

Compare this to the well-established BEV market, that boasts models from nearly all household manufacturers, and it’s clear to see that batteries have the upper hand when it comes to choice. Moreover, due to the better-established infrastructure and greater sense of competition between manufacturers, BEVs range in price with many more affordable models available, The Renault Zoe is a great example of this, which is available to lease brand-new for just £196 a month.

Moreover, as previously mentioned, there are noticeable differences in running costs between the two, with hydrogen costing more per mile to run compared to electric batteries (although Toyota offers three years of free fuel with the Mirai). This coupled with the cost of entry, makes battery powered EVs clearly more cost effective in both the short and long term.

Winner – Batteries.

Charging/fuelling station availability

In addition to the high cost of entry, more expensive running costs and limited choice, you are also restricted in where you can drive your FCEV due to lack of facilities.

Unlike the current infrastructure supporting BEVs that includes thousands of charging stations around the world, the same facilities don’t yet exist for fuel cells. There are only around 400 hydrogen fuel stations worldwide (of which a large number are private) and there are only 16 stations in the UK. This makes FCEVs completely impractical unless you happen to live near one of the very few stations available.

Winner – electric cars.

Range

Because of the limited choice of fuel cell vehicles on the market, it makes comparing range between the two power options difficult. However, it is promising to note that the Hyundai Nexo has the same advertised range as the Tesla Model S, the longest-range BEV currently on the market. This suggests that fuel cells have the potential to out-range their battery counterparts as they already match the performance of lithium-ion batteries that has taken a few years of development to achieve.

Moreover, both fuel-based models (the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai) out range the average battery powered electric vehicles. Standard BEVs on the market offer a range between 150 – 380 miles on a single charge, compared to the 312 – 380 mile range from fuel cells.

Winner – hydrogen cars.

Emissions

Both BEVs and FCEVs emit zero emissions from their tailpipe during operation. This means that they both produce clean energy and are equally as eco-friendly to drive.

As such in order to compare emissions, vehicle production needs to be taken into account. Manufacturing a lithium-ion battery can be a very energy intensive process and creates an estimated 20 tonnes of CO2 in order to create the battery. Averaging the CO2 production over the lifetime of the battery leads to between 80-124g/km of CO2 when taking into account charging.

In contrast, the most popular method to produce hydrogen gas comes from burning fossil fuels and leads to an estimated 120g/km of CO2 over the lifetime of a fuel cell. However, if greener renewable sources are used to produce hydrogen, this figure could be a lot lower. This means that both power options are equally as eco-friendly to produce on average, since it’s hard to tell which sources have been used in production.

Winner – draw.

Safety

Safety has been a key concern with fuel cells that has led many to assume they are too dangerous to utilise. However, new technologies have resolved many traditional safety issues associated with hydrogen.

For example, the Toyota Mirai uses patented designs to prevent leakage in their tanks, a previously common occurrence with hydrogen fuel cells. Moreover, they shut off the hydrogen flow in the event of a collision, store their tanks outside of the cabin to prevent hydrogen build up and in the unlikely event of leakage, since it is lighter than air the hydrogen escapes into the atmosphere harmlessly. All of this dramatically decreases the chances of adverse effects.

Electric batteries in vehicles are equally troublesome, with lithium-ion batteries being known to overheat and overcharge leading to numerous personal injuries through their use in laptops and phones. However, vehicle manufacturers have gone above and beyond to ensure the safety of their use by regulating temperatures to help prevent overheating and using multiple smaller batteries rather than larger ones in order to avoid overcharging.

As such, the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen gas can be equated as vehicle manufacturers are developing techniques to further secure their use.

Winner – draw.

Which one should I choose?

While there are arguments for and against each, the newborn market for FCEVs could be too limited and expensive to justify choosing a hydrogen-fuelled car. However, with their impressive potential driving range, they could become worthwhile in the future once the infrastructure is in place to support fuel cell-based vehicles and the market competition is present to drive prices down. Until then, electric batteries are the recommended way forward.

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