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Are Battery Cells Just Precursor to Hydrogen Fuel Cells? The Real Next-Gen of EV’s?



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The adoption of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in North America appears to have hit a snag.  With poor resale values, expensive repair costs, and lagging infrastructure, sales have slowed – markedly.  There have even been decision reversals by large rental companies like Hertz that have decided to offload a huge portion of EVs in its fleet, returning to their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts.

While this may be the case, it would be crazy to think that transitioning away from something as ubiquitous as the ICE would happen seamlessly.  There were always going to be setbacks, and there were always going to be valid questions posed along the way surrounding the merits of EVs.

The bottom line is that the shift toward EVs isn't just a desire by the few; it is a need by the many in the fight against climate change.  However, if the current generation of EVs isn't up to the task, what other options do we have?  For many, the answer is one that has been mulled over for many years now and has recently seen critical advancements – Hydrogen Electric Vehicles (HEVs).

Improving the Durability of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

In a recent study, a joint research team comprised of scientists from Harvard and Incheon National Universities detailed a new approach to building hydrogen fuel cells that would result in both improved durability and lifespans.

More specifically, the study saw the development of a “category of fatigue-resistant electrolyte membranes, consisting of an interpenetrating network of Nafion and perfluoropolyether (PFPE).” When used, it was noted that typical fatigue, which presents as stress fractures that occur during regular usage of fuel cells, could be greatly diminished.

By incorporating the material into electrolyte membranes within a fuel cell, the study showed that it elevated the “…fatigue threshold by 175% and extends the lifespan of the fuel cell by 1.7 times. Additionally, the unmodified Nafion membrane exhibits a lifespan of 242 hours, whereas the composite membrane was observed to have a lifespan of 410 hours.”

While the team noted that the introduction of this material slightly degraded the performance of the fuel cells, the staggering improvement in durability/longevity is clearly a worthwhile trade-off.  Moving forward, if hydrogen fuel cells are expected to supplant their battery pack counterparts in the EV sector, these are the types of advancements that need to be made.  However, it is important to remember that the best technology does not always win out.  First mover's advantage is real, and battery-powered EVs are clearly in the lead, despite a recent market slump.

What Are Hydrogen Electric Vehicles (HEVs)?

An electric vehicle is one that relies on motors powered by electricity rather than an engine that is powered by combusting fuel.  As it stands, the overwhelming majority of electric vehicles utilize heavy battery packs to store and deliver the electricity to power these motors.  As mentioned, there is another approach to EVs that appears to be gaining traction – hydrogen fuel cells.

How do fuel cell electric vehicles work?

In Hydrogen Electric Vehicles (HEVs), sometimes called Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs), the electricity required to power the motor(s) is provided through an electrochemical reaction that sees hydrogen, stored as either a liquid or compressed gas, split into protons and electrons.  The entire process works as follows:

  1. Hydrogen stored in a high-pressure tank is released on demand to a fuel cell.
  2. Hydrogen introduced to the fuel cell is split into protons and electrons.
  3. Electrons are used to power motors, which then drive wheels.
  4. Protons combine with oxygen in the air, producing two by-products: heat & water vapor.

Interestingly, a select few hybrid HEVs utilize a smaller battery pack to capture lost energy through regenerative braking, combining the best of both worlds.

What's the Appeal of Hydrogen?

The appeals behind HEVs are varied but substantial, albeit so are battery-powered EVs.  So, while battery-powered variants currently dominate the market, they have been, by no means, declared the winning approach.  In fact, each of the following factors points to HEVs being superior in some way.

Generation and Storage: Battery packs typically comprise materials gathered by large, invasive mining operations that wreak havoc on the Earth, undermining the premise that their use is good for the environment.  Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be captured through means like sustainable electrolysis and potentially naturally occurring reserves.

Furthermore, Hydrogen can easily be compressed into a liquid and transported without issue in vast quantities.  It does not require transmission lines from the point of creation, making the process more flexible.

Performance: From a performance standpoint, there is not a large difference between HEVs and BEVs.  Both types of vehicles utilize motors to power their drivewheels, meaning both will benefit from the instant torque and output synonymous with the technology.

Emissions: On the emissions front, Hydrogen is arguably better.  While it is technically a secondary emitter, this involves only water vapor coming out of the tailpipe.  Meanwhile, BEVs have no emissions at all.  Where Hydrogen sets itself apart is in the manufacturing process, as the battery packs that it forgoes require extensive mining to create, damaging the Earth in the process.

Refueling: Refueling is one of the biggest appeals to Hydrogen, as it is a factor that end-users will deal with first-hand on a regular basis.  While BEVs typically require long charge times and specialized infrastructure, HEVs can refuel as quickly as a regular gas/diesel vehicle.

Range: Although battery technology is improving, for a BEV to boast the same range as more traditional ICE, a massive battery pack is required.  This results in longer charge times, more of an environmental footprint, and losses in efficiency due to weight.  Hydrogen, on the other hand, boasts range figures typically on par with ICE, taking range anxiety out of the equation entirely.

Cold Climates: Part of the range anxiety that plagues BEV owners comes down to the region.  Very few places boast ideal climate conditions for a BEV, resulting in a drastically reduced range for many customers.  While Hydrogen does lose some range in cold weather, it is nowhere as dramatic, making it a more appealing option to many.

As you can see, there are various critical areas in which HEVs can outperform their battery pack variants.  Where they begin to lag is in complexity, the need for retrofitting existing refueling infrastructure, and the potential advent of solid-state batteries.

Industry Players Developing Hydrogen Solutions

The EV industry may be experiencing a few bumps in the road right now, but it remains clear that they are the future of transportation.  What isn't as clear is what form EVs will take.  Will they be battery-powered? Or will they rely on hydrogen fuel cells?  The following pair of companies are banking on the latter and have already begun planning for such a future.

*Figures provided below were accurate at the time of writing and are subject to change.  Any potential investor should verify metrics*

1. Toyota

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MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)

As the world's largest automaker, it should be no surprise that Toyota has ventured into the realm of HEVs.  Interestingly, while the company is actively developing solid-state battery solutions, Toyota has pushed back against the battery EVs of today.  Instead, Toyota has made it known that it believes a brighter future lies with HEVs and even Hydrogen Combustion engines.

TOYOTA MIRAI | 2nd Generation Toyota Fuel Cell System | Toyota

Notably, Toyota began developing HEV technology in 1992, building to the release of the ‘Mirai' – a sedan boasting 5-minute refueling, 650km of range, and zero harmful emissions.

2. Plug Power

finviz dynamic chart for  PLUG

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)

Plug Power Inc., established in 1997 and headquartered in Latham, New York, remains a key player in advancing hydrogen fuel cell technology.  Notably, Plug Power does not focus solely on cars and trucks; the company designs and manufactures such systems for smaller installations that utilize electric motors.

In recent years, Plug Power has expanded its focus beyond fuel cells for material handling and has begun to target broader markets.  This includes stationary power systems, delivery vehicle fleets, and even potential applications in aviation.  The company's strategic acquisitions, such as that of United Hydrogen and Giner ELX, have further strengthened its position in the hydrogen economy by enhancing its capabilities in hydrogen generation, liquefaction, and distribution.

Final Word

With battery EVs stumbling, more focus is being put on potential alternatives.  As it stands, hydrogen solutions are at the front of the pack, and although it may be easy to dismiss the technology at first glance, remember that it is not just Toyota pushing for hydrogen.  Partnerships and development of hydrogen solutions involving companies like Honda, GM, Hyundai, and more already exist.

With increasing access to sustainably sourced hydrogen growing every day, the future of EVs may look slightly different than many realize.

Joshua Stoner is a multi-faceted working professional. He has a great interest in the revolutionary 'blockchain' technology.