Fuel Cell vs. Battery Cars. Ask anyone about pure battery operated vehicles versus fuel cell technology and you will likely witness a very lively and heated debate. Proponents on both sides quickly become emotional, as if defending their favorite sports teams. The problem is that both technologies are complicated and the overall picture has serious socio-political implication. Nonetheless, hydrogen draws on the imagination, maybe due to a Jetson’s age mixed with good old Star Trek.
Pure Battery Electric Car Technology. Battery technology and its never-ending development has advanced dramatically. If range hasn’t kept up with the exponential pace of battery energy density, we can blame this on weight factors including, security features, AC and other creature comfort features older electric cars dispensed with. Battery energy density can now power a full size sedan over 260 miles on a single charge.
Hydrogen’s Comeback. But if battery technology has had a good run so far, hydrogen proponents are still quick to point out that fuel cell technology is the future. The problem is that for one of the universe most abundant molecule, hydrogen is complicated to make, compress, store and render back into energy.
DOE & Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE's has recently completed a seven-year project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL in order to demonstrate and evaluate hydrogen fuel cell for electric vehicles, FCEVs and hydrogen fueling infrastructure in real-world settings. One of the problem found is that making hydrogen means a lot of energy, traditionally electricity, although newer breakthroughs show it can be done using algae and other less energy intensive processes.
While range is not much of an issue, considering plug-in hybrids offer enough these days, the hydrogen infrastructure is quite another. Keeping hydrogen cool and compressed takes a lot of energy and make transporting it almost impossible. The DOE established targets back in 2003 for FCEVs and hydrogen fueling infrastructure with the goal of achieving them by 2009. These targets called for a 250-mile driving range with 2,000-hour fuel cell durability at $3 per gallon gasoline equivalent for hydrogen production cost. But all of this might still be questioned with the advent of newer more efficient plug-in hybrid cars that can deliver 500 miles on a single tank at a much more advantageous purchase price.
Nonetheless, we should not dismiss hydrogen fuel cell technology, since they do have other applications where they excel. Michelin has been working on a low capacity, low-pressure fuel tank that could prove advantageous if driving in an area where hydrogen pumps are near. A few years ago I drove the Honda Clarity that while a fine sedan still cost back then $5 million to make. Ultimately, the choice of pure electric battery operated cars, intelligent plug-in hybrids and fuel cell technology should be part of the choice we have, and not the only option.