FUEL CELLS and BATTERIES : FRIENDS OR FOES?

When it comes to the clean transportation sector, it’s not uncommon to hear: “Batteries have won.”  While the sight of a near-silent electric vehicles (EVs) zipping around cities is no longer a rarity, they are unfortunately not the panacea for our clean transportation needs.  They are still limited by long recharging times, the ability to scale manufacture, and a lack of recycling technology.  I’m not for a moment suggesting we scrap the lot and start again from scratch; but let’s for a moment go back in time.

The year was 1997 - Tony Blair was elected as PM, Jack and Rose set sail on the Titanic (for the first time), and a little sedan called the Prius went on sale in Japan.  While Leo claimed he was “King of the World”, it was the Prius whose legacy revolutionized the automotive industry.  Toyota took their years of knowledge of developing internal combustion engines (ICEs) and combined it with the less mature battery and dual drivetrain technology.  The initial result was a vehicle which extended the range and reduced the emissions when compared to a conventional ICE vehicle, thus becoming the darling of eco road warriors.  The legacy became the trove of knowledge that was unlocked by continuing to develop battery technology.

 Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius

Back to 2018, where automotive battery technology has matured to the point where most car manufacturers have an EV in their product portfolio or have at the very least stated their intention to develop one.  But why ditch the ICE?  Simply put, the energy density of petrol and diesel pale in comparison to those of batteries and an EV produces no local emissions, ideal for city driving.  That’s not to say that hybrid vehicle sales are slowing down, but they have certainly become less appealing 20 years later.

Plug in fuel cell

So what’s the next logical step?  The ICE is less relevant for hybrid applications and battery technology has matured – so why not replace the former?  That’s an opportunity for hydrogen fuel cells to make their mark in the transportation sector.  Compressed hydrogen has a higher energy density than current battery technologies and the only emission from converting the hydrogen to electricity is water. These benefits can extend the range of EVs without compromising its status as a non-carbon emitting vehicle.  Moreover, they benefit from the refuelling times of conventional petrol and hybrid cars.

While the likes of Toyota and Hyundai have remained innovative in this sector by producing non-hybrid fuel cell cars, they have become prohibitively expensive to consumers when there are no subsidies in place.  This is exactly why we can’t ditch the batteries; they provide instant power and enable the use of a smaller fuel cell stack, decreasing the cost to the end-user.

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So have batteries won?  They’ve certainly won their battle for relevancy and we will see more EVs on the road in the coming years.  Is it enough?  Absolutely not.  It would require Gigawatts more of installed capacity to fully electrify transportation in the UK alone (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jul/13/electric-car-boom-power-demand-national-grid-hinkley-point-c).  When you consider the benefits of a new hybrid revolution, fuelled by the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, it must be said that in the war against climate change, batteries have a convincing ally.

Dr Erik Engebretsen

Head of Engineering

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