Hydrogen solutions must not be neglected in the transformation of transport. For electric cars, manufacturers have so far relied primarily on the battery-only variant. Technology experts are calling for more openness to alternative hydrogen solutions.

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The current cost advantages of battery-electric cars should not lead to a hasty write-off of alternatives such as hydrogen powertrains, according to engineers. The fuel cell and also the hydrogen direct burner remain important additions in terms of CO2 savings and market potential.

The use of hydrogen as an energy carrier and the production of green electricity are to be expanded in the coming years. From a general perspective, the debate too often focuses on the purely battery-electric vehicle. More attention needs to be paid to the overall climate footprint of the various options over the vehicle’s life cycle, from raw materials to recycling. The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and the Association of German Engineers (VDI) had also spoken out in favor of parallel, further research into hydrogen drives.

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Fuel cells, in which hydrogen (H2) and oxygen react to form water and the resulting energy drives the electric motor, have so far been used primarily in some heavy commercial vehicles such as buses. In passenger cars, their share is still very low. High costs, a lack of a dense H2 filling station network and the overall lower efficiency are among the main reasons for this.

In addition, hydrogen itself must first be obtained with a lot of electrical energy by splitting water or from hydrocarbons. As with the electricity used to fuel battery cars, green electricity should be used in the interest of minimizing CO2 emissions. This would have to be available on a large scale.

With hydrogen solutions ready for series production

Based on the expected German electricity mix and data from the Federal Environment Agency, the experts are developing scenarios for the climate balance and competitiveness of the drive systems. If the life cycle of the car is taken as a yardstick, there should also be advantages in using green hydrogen, at least for larger SUVs. This would not have to diminish the simultaneous use of pure battery cars at all. With all three drive variants examined, the CO2 footprint in the transport sector can be significantly reduced in 2030. Depending on the class investigated, a vehicle powered by a fuel cell is just as climate-friendly as a purely battery-electric vehicle.

Hydrogen engines could also be ready for series production quite quickly, even if they are less efficient, and this could be the case for both heavy passenger cars and commercial vehicles. According to expert estimates, it would be possible for the drives to become competitive with battery e-drives with appropriate further development and depending on production conditions. Conversely, purely battery-powered models would also have a chance in the heavy-duty sector. It all depends on a mixture of variants.

Hydrogen solutions and the energy transition

However, the calculations depend on many boundary conditions. Key factors are a rapid expansion of renewable energy production and the question of whether hydrogen and battery cells will be produced in Germany. For H2 cars, the costs to date are still quite high due to the large amount of electricity required and the long chain from raw material production to operation of the car.

Accordingly, this could change, at least in part, should the development of a hydrogen economy succeed and the storage and distribution of the element become more profitable. Truck manufacturers such as Traton and Daimler are also testing fuel cells and various hydrogen solutions.

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