There is an urgent need to make mobility more environmentally friendly and sustainable. While a reduction in mobility would be the most obvious consideration to drive sustainability, modern economies and lifestyles that focus on professional and individual needs for traveling, convenience, and instantaneousness prohibit its implementation. Clean mobility through hydrogen will enable sustainable mobility in the future, leading to a future increase in research and investments.

In the passenger vehicle area, the first step has been taken through extensive powertrain advancements and optimization of combustion engines. Now, electrification technologies are being unveiled, in the form of full hybridization and purely battery-driven powertrains. Recent announcements from car OEMs and governments have set targets to enable a fully electric era for new light vehicles starting in 2030 or 2035 – Jaguar aiming to be the first, as soon as 2025.

Fuel Cell Technologies For Use in Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles – Next Step Within the Electrification and Sustainability Roadmap

Main drivers for FCEVs (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles):

  • A vehicle that emits water instead of CO2 and NOx is sustainable and promising, exactly what the fuel cell powertrain technology achieves.
  • Short Charging Times: Comparable to ICE vehicles (about 3 minutes), significantly shorter than BEV’s (approximately 10 minutes for 80% state-of-charge with DC level 3)
  • Better Environmental Sustainability: The genuine purpose of using hydrogen to power vehicles is to rely on low-carbon hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources (such as water, biogas, or agricultural waste), therefore with a lesser impact on the environment as it would limit the generation of greenhouse gases. See Chart 1: Operating principles of fuel cell electric vehicle – Source: Toyota

In addition, the CCUS technology (Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage) is likely to improve the carbon footprint and the overall environmental impact of hydrogen production. An important macro-economic and political aspect is the reduced dependence on oil imports (while hydrogen production can be domestic) and lower vulnerability to oil price volatility. The goal is to achieve local, decentralized hydrogen production,  avoiding transportation needs. Should hydrogen need to be transported, it is easy to transport in long-distance. It can be transported as compressed gas by truck or by pipeline, or in liquid state by truck.

Hydrogen to Power Our Vehicles – Leading to Increased Research and Investments

With only 40,500 fuel cell light vehicles in 2021, the fuel cell powertrain technology currently accounts for no more than 0.048% of global light vehicle production. FCEVs are forecasted to remain a niche by 2030-2035 in the light vehicle segment – forecast 2027: 57,800 units i.e. 0.059% of total LV production. In terms of FCEV production share, Toyota and Hyundai are by far the leading OEMs in the LV segment with the respective models Mirai and Nexo. GM and Honda are also acknowledged technology leaders with more than 2,220 fuel cell patents filed between 2002 and 2015, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index.

Large volume fuel cell series applications will be implemented in the truck and bus segments at first – potentially by 2030 – where a BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) solution would make little sense  due to large, heavy batteries with extensive charging times, and reduced payload. Transit busses used in closed loops seem to be particularly well suited for an earlier start of fuel cell applications where there is no need for a broad refueling infrastructure.

Main barriers to fuel cell adoption for electric vehicles are:

  • Higher vehicle production cost compared to BEV’s: Due to expensive materials and manufacturing costs of the fuel cell stack that require expensive, precious metals such as platinum. Fuel cell system costs are expected to significantly decrease thanks to further R&D and growing production volumes. See Chart 2: Fuel cell system cost expectation for 2025 – Source: IEA
  • Taking this into consideration, the TCO of an FCEV could break-even with BEVs at 400 km drive range. See Chart 3: TCO for BEV vs. FCEV – Source: IEA
  • High Infrastructure Development Costs: The refueling infrastructure needs to be created for each step of the value chain – from hydrogen transport, through storage and filling stations – and will be critical to allow a volume-market penetration.
  • Low-Efficiency in the Well-To-Pump Phase: In order to be ‘green’, hydrogen has to be produced primarily from renewable sources, not from fossil fuel. The transformation of renewable energy into hydrogen implies significant process inefficiencies, mainly due to losses from electrolyzing water. As a matter of fact, FCEVs using hydrogen from renewable energy sources are about 50% less efficient in the well-to-pump phase than BEVs, but the fuel cell technology helps solve the charging time issue, and makes it easier – with a decentral hydrogen production – to address the need for local refueling infrastructure.

Hydrogen can be produced from water electrolysis, or from fossil fuels either through coal gasification or through natural gas reforming, coupled with CO2 capture (CCUS) Today, hydrogen is mainly being reformed from natural gas (methane). The electrolysis of water (via alkaline electrolyzers) for hydrogen production has only been used to a limited extent so far. However, 2019 was a record year with regards to operational electrolysis capacity, and several announcements were made for further significant capacity increase in upcoming years. See Chart 4: Low-carbon hydrogen production – Source: IEA

Subsidies and Incentives are Required to Drive Fuel Cell Vehicle Growth

The number of countries with policies directly supporting investment in hydrogen technologies is increasing, along with the number of sectors they target. There are already around 50 targets, mandates, and policy incentives in place today at the global level that directly support hydrogen development, the majority of which focus on the transportation segment, and 15 of which specifically target passenger car applications.

Current subsidization and incentive programs include:

  • Japan: Hydrogen-powered FCEVs are mainly passenger vehicles from Toyota and Honda. With governmental subsidization, the price for a Toyota Mirai (FCEV) comes down from the equivalent of about $60,000 to about $40,000
  • Germany: A 10-year tax exemption is granted to owners of FCEVs, as well as a purchase subsidy of €8,000
  • US: Several states provide up to a $5,000 incentive for the purchase or lease of a hydrogen FCEV (e.g. California $4,500, Connecticut $5,000, New York $2,000); and additional federal tax credits (maximum credit amounts $8,000) are available for the purchase of FCEVs; FCEVs are eligible for a California HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) sticker, therefore gaining access to carpool lanes

Fuel Cell Vehicles Will Bring New Opportunities to the Automotive Industry

With the rise of FCEVs, new opportunities will emerge for suppliers. The fuel cell stack, the fuel cell boost converter, and the hydrogen tank are new, FCEV-specific components that will require engineering capabilities and production capacities from the supply chain. What component designs will establish themselves as volume-market solutions, and what the impact on material demand and forming processes will be, needs to be investigated. The fundamentals that drive the need for light weighting in ICE vehicles and BEVs – namely maximize energy efficiency and riding behavior – will also apply to FCEVs, and fuel cell vehicles represent a long-term opportunity for aluminum and advanced steel solutions. See Chart 5: Fuel cell vehicle architecture – Source: Toyota

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