In the third and last part of our small series about electric cars, battery or hydrogen-powered, we compare these two concepts once again, look at the respective dangers, and draw a conclusion as to which one has the best chances for the future.
Fuel cells are getting cheaper
Audi and Hyundai are working on the development of a production series of cars with fuel cells. “By 2025, we will have significantly more than 20 electrified models on offer: Plug-in hybrids, electric cars, and a limited series of a first model with fuel cells,” said Audi boss Bram Schot last year. “It is our goal to become the leading premium brand for electric cars by the middle of the next decade and to sell 800,000 electric cars per year.” Dr. Nikolai Ardey, head of Powertrain Development at Ingolstadt, went one step further and said that the currently still very high costs for a car with a fuel cell could be significantly reduced.
“If, after 2025, you come up with about 100,000 units per year, which is a quite achievable figure for a company like Volkswagen, you can assume that the price of a fuel cell can be reduced by about a third to a quarter,” Arday said in an interview with Springer Professional.
Currently, the list price of Toyota Mirai is just under 80,000 euros, a Hyundai Nexo costs around 10,000 euros less. As for those costs, a big factor is the fuel cell, since one of the materials used is platinum, rare and therefore extremely expensive. However, according to Professor Christian Mohrdiek, Managing Director of Mercedes-Benz Fuel Cell GmbH and responsible for fuel cell development witin the Daimler Group, platinum is “no longer the biggest cost factor in the development of the fuel cell”.
There is positive news in this respect from Volkswagen too. In cooperation with Stanford University, the company has developed a new process which distributes platinum atoms extremely thinly over a carbon surface. Thanks to this new process, the amount of platinum used is able to be reduced to a fraction, which in turn significantly reduces the costs.
Batteries – the longer the range, the higher the price
A buyer of an electrically powered car has to dig deeper into their pockets than a buyer of a car with a combustion engine. The main reason for this is the battery or its respective capacity. The more kilowatt/hours, the greater the range and the higher the price. Therefore, the battery for a Tesla with a range of up to 600 kilometers – as already mentioned earlier in this series – costs 20,000 euros, while a battery that just lasts half that range is half as expensive.
There are also differences in the estimated service life of 100,000 to 800,000 kilometers. Although the lithium-ion batteries hardly have any capacity loss even with frequent charging, the battery of a car loses as much charging capacity over the course of its life just as the battery of a mobile phone does. How quickly this reduction in capacity occurs depends not only on the number of charging cycles but also on how the battery is recharged, by fast charging or at normal speed. Factors such as outside temperature and driving style also play a role. After about eight to ten years, the batteries are still functional, but over time, the charging capacity drops down to 70 to 80 percent.
Battery recycling problem
Even batteries that are no longer used in cars are able to, for example, serve as intermediate storage for electricity from renewable energies in order to store the excess electricity produced, (for example from wind power plants), and feed it back into the grid at a later time. At some point, however, the question arises as to what to do with dead lithium-ion batteries. At present, only about 50 percent of the batteries are recycled again whereby the lithium is elaborately extracted.
However, there are already attempts to solve this problem for the long term. The US company EnZinc is developing a specialized nickel-zinc battery as an alternative to the lithium-ion battery. According to the California based company, the “3D zinc ‘sponge’ structure allows the battery to provide more than three times the energy of lead-acid batteries with two to three times the lifespan, while still costing about the same. This provides the same energy and lifespan at about half the cost compared to Li-Ion batteries.” Moreover, the battery is completely recyclable and much safer to use than either lead or lithium-based batteries.
Danger of explosions with battery and hydrogen?
A few weeks ago, a Tesla Model S apparently suddenly caught fire. This second case within a relatively short period of time started a discussion about the safety of electric cars. Another major topic was/is the question of what happens in the event of an accident. How big is the risk of a fire? According to an ADAC report, “comparatively low, since current electric cars are just as safe in an accident as conventional cars and the high-voltage system is usually switched off when the airbag is triggered as soon as an accident occurs”.
The Automobile Club has carried out a crash test comparison of the electrically powered Volkswagen e-up! and the regular VW up!, and ended up awarding 5 stars to both cars. The electrical shutdown of the high-voltage system in the e-up! reacted within milliseconds after the accident and separated the connecting cable between the battery pack and the high-voltage cables to the electric drive via a relay. “The battery did not ignite, there was no risk of fire.”
Consumers are also worried about the safety of hydrogen cars, especially after the explosion of a hydrogen filling station in Norway about a month ago. Manufacturers, however, claim that cars with fuel cells are no more dangerous than conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles. On the contrary. “Even if hydrogen is highly flammable, there is no increased risk in the event of an accident. Rather, hydrogen-powered vehicles are safer than conventional gasoline vehicles,” Toyota emphasizes on their website. As a test by the University of Miami has shown, hydrogen does not explode.
“The scientists set the vehicles on fire after they leaked a petrol tank and a hydrogen tank. Although a jet of flame was created on the hydrogen tank, it shot up in flames with extreme heat and went out very quickly,” the Japanese explain. “Most of the car remained undamaged. Hydrogen evaporates quickly and the vehicle cabin is also protected against hydrogen leakage. The gasoline engine, on the other hand, totally burnt out”. A leak in the hydrogen tank, which could lead to a fire, is also very unlikely. And even if a leak were to occur, the sensors would detect the leaking hydrogen and the vehicle would automatically switch off.
Conclusion: Battery or hydrogen?
What about the costs of charging batteries and refueling hydrogen? The latter costs 9.50 euros per kilogram. Consumption is around one kilo per 100 kilometers, which means that the H2 car is no cheaper than a conventional car with a combustion engine. Things are different with the battery-powered car. According to an ADAC calculation, an electric car is 30 euros cheaper per month if you take a price of 1.30 per liter of fuel and 28 euro cents per kilowatt-hour as a basis. Therefore, one more point for the battery car.
The next point goes just as assuredly to the battery car: the charging options. In Germany, there are more than 15,000 charging stations for battery cars and only 71 fuel pumps for hydrogen.
The fuel cell car, on the other hand, wins when it comes to the time spent at the fuel pump. In just three to five minutes it can be refueled almost just as quickly as a gasoline or diesel engine. Charging a battery car depends on the capacity of the battery and the type of charging. At home, it takes between eight and 14 hours, at a public fast-charging station it takes between 30 and 60 minutes if the car is fitted for these charging stations.
In terms of range, the battery cars come closer to hydrogen car range of approximately 500 kilometers, or have already surpassed them. You are able to drive about 560 kilometers without having to recharge using the current Tesla Model 3, depending on your driving style. So it’s a draw.
As far as eco-friendliness is concerned, both concepts are quite similar – at least in Germany – since electricity production is equally harmful to the environment in both cases. However, when it comes to the fuel cell car, the hydrogen has to be transported to the fuel stations, which further pollutes the environment. These fuel stations also have to be set up first. Their construction costs about 1,000,000 euros each, while simply setting up additional charging stations is enough for battery-driven cars. Advantage: battery.
Finally, what about the “danger” that a changeover to e-cars would lead to the collapse of electricity grids? According to some calculations, 100 kilowatt-hours of energy is required to produce ten liters of fuel, whether diesel or petrol, from “well to wheel”, i.e. from the well to the pump. A car with a combustion engine is able to travel an average of 100 kilometers on these ten liters. With the same amount of effort, a Tesla would travel five times as far, or five electric cars could each travel 100 kilometers. And since electric cars could replace vehicles with internal combustion engines and not be added to the equation, all the energy that would no longer be needed to generate gasoline or diesel could instead be used for charging.
At the moment, the battery car is still slightly ahead, but perhaps Mercedes might have found the best solution with the GLC F-CELL, which combines fuel cell and battery technology into a plug-in hybrid, and both of these concepts definitely have a future …