Tomorrow’s EVs May Add Hydrogen Fuel Cells to the Powertrain Assembly
Battery powered electric vehicles are experiencing monumental growth today. The hype-train for BEV’s is picking up speed; powered by Enigmatic Billionaires, luxurious sports cars, and charging station ubiquity, it’s clear that the public hungers for a green transportation solution. Nevertheless, there are potentially insurmountable engineering challenges on road to BEV’s replacing fossil-fueled vehicles. Battery charge times, and total energy storage represent the Achilles heel of the Plug-In EV. A travelling sales-person cannot tolerate a 2-hour charge time when they are routinely required to travel up to a thousand kilometers in a day. Moreover, a semi transporting heavy equipment will not be happy with a battery that overheats on the first hill-climb of the day. Let us take a step back, and look beyond the 1 hour per leg commuter, it is clear that the full spectrum of vehicles on today’s roads requires a solution that can provide clean energy without sacrificing the conveniences that we have grown to rely on with fossil-fueled vehicles.
Toyota and other large automakers have publically noted this, and have recommitted to another member of the green-energy-storage family. Move aside Li-Ion batteries, lets get re-acquainted with your older sibling: Hydrogen Fuel Cells.
Wait, wait, wait… What is a Hydrogen Vehicle?
Although most people have heard buzz about Hydrogen Vehicles, few understand what they are, and how they differ from the other cars we see on the road every day. HV’s are merely a special type of Electric vehicle, i.e. they rely on electric motors to power the wheels. The major difference is in the method of energy storage. Where a traditional EV would use Lithium-Ion batteries to store the power, HV’s keep a pressurized tank of hydrogen onboard as an energy bank. The huge benefit? It takes about 3 minutes to refill a Hydrogen tank, which gets you about 500km.
Similar to BEVs, hydrogen vehicles use chemical reactions to produce electricity directly. This electricity efficiently produces mechanical power by electric motors. This is opposed to fossil fuels, which react chemically to produce heat, and then the heat produces mechanical power (much less efficient).
The big difference in re-fuelling time is because EV’s can only accept energy so quickly or they overheat. A chemical reaction takes place inside the battery that can only safely occur so quickly. Meanwhile, physical tank refilling is the only limiting factor for HVs.
This fundamental difference is what gives HV’s a leg-up on BEVs. HVs are actually re-fueled: there is a fuel that is loaded onto the car, and is slowly depleted, much more closely aligns with the current infrastructure, habits and expectations of today’s society.
Challenges in our Headlights, but Success in the Rear-View Mirror for Hydrogen Powered Electric Vehicle Drivetrain
There remains big steps before we can start living in a hydrogen future. Refueling infrastructure remains a major barrier to widespread HV sales. Its great that I could drive with 0 emissions from Victoria to St John’s “in theory”. But the trip won’t become possible in practice until there is significant investment in hydrogen refueling stations. We’re making progress! BC has already begun the investment. For more information, see here: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/hydrogen-fuel-pump-opens-in-vancouver-1.4709016
Although Canada may not be ready for coast-to-coast HV adoption, there are bright-stars leading the way to a zero-emissions future. Japan has taken advantage of the 2020 Toyko Olympics to usher in a bright-new age in Fuel Cell Development. They have committed to a ¥40B Investment in infrastructure, along with a goal of 40,000 HVs on the road. Honda has partnered with GM on a $85B Fuel Cell plant. Move aside Gigafactory, Hydrogen is coming to town!
Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicle Manufacturing
Although FCEV’s have significant differences in energy storage from BEVs, their power-transmission components remain largely unchanged. This is a big-win for auto makers, as they can develop transmissions to be shared between the two styles of cars. Sharing parts across car-models is a tried-and-true method of reducing costs in car manufacturing. Processes that are more efficient, more automation, and better part quality all combine to drive down the cost of a car-part.
Where has the Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Discussion Taken Us?
Electric vehicles are the future, but what makes the current flow is still very open-ended. Batteries may be cachet today, but it is unclear whether they have the flexibility and cost to outpace fuel cells. Some big names in the auto industry are betting on Hydrogen. The likes of Toyota, Honda and GM are all investing billions this tech. The only thing we know for sure: Innovative Automation will be able to support FCEV or BEV production, as the first-choice provider of automation solutions to global leaders in manufacturing.