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Hydrogen as an energy carrier for the propulsion of vehicles is on a steady rise. This seems strange because the Toyota Mirai or Hyundai Nexo cannot compete with the purely battery-powered counterparts in terms of price/performance ratio. In addition, the charging infrastructure for battery vehicles is much more extensive, the price of a kilo of hydrogen is still high and the efficiency of a fuel cell vehicle is relatively low due to the double conversion of energy. Last but not least, Tesla’s enormous marketing power cannot be compared with the substantial long-term expressions of, for example, Toyota.

So twenty years after its first peak the question arises: on what, despite the facts mentioned above, can a renewed belief in hydrogen really be based?

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There is a growing belief that the battery will not be the ideal solution for every form of transport. In addition, battery manufacturers believe that the supply of batteries will not be able to meet future demand. Globally, in 2025, 40 – and in 2030, 80 – full-revving “gigafactories” will be needed to meet demand. This puts enormous pressure on the extraction of rare earth materials, including lithium. It is clear that this also has geopolitical consequences because China has been making progress in almost all areas for much longer than Europe. In addition, following earlier statements about the construction of giga-plants, Bosch has withdrawn because of the high risk of the investments. And car manufacturers are still concerned about the intrinsic unsafety of today’s lithium-ion batteries. The solid-state battery offers many advantages in terms of safety, energy and fast charging possibilities. But unfortunately, the mass production of this battery is repeatedly postponed. Panasonic is now talking about 2028.

Whether or not the fuel cell will seriously break through does depend on large investments; the price drop that is possible with large production is comparable to the lithium-ion battery. (Story continues below)

Hydrogen as an energy carrier has great advantages for vehicles, boats or planes, where a lot of energy has to be taken into account. This is not necessary for inland and inter-city transport, but it is for long-haul trucks. With hydrogen, a high range can be achieved by simply increasing the size of the tanks, comparable to diesel. In addition to the large-scale projects that are planned in China, South Korea and Japan, there are also major projects in Switzerland. Hyundai will supply 1600 fuel cell trucks there between now and 2025. This is a serious move that will bring about price reductions and put pressure on a future “technological monoculture” based solely on batteries.
In short, we are still facing interesting times, probably comparable to the beginning of the last century when different forms of propulsion could seriously compete with each other.

About this column:

In a weekly column written alternately by Eveline van Zeeland, Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. The seven columnists, and occasionally a guest blogger, all work in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be better. Here are all the previous episodes.