Fuel cell and hydrogen engine engineers: Don’t rush to write off alternative drives

Fuel cell and hydrogen engine engineers: Don’t rush to write off alternative drives

Fuel cell and hydrogen engine engineers: Don't rush to write off alternative drives

In the opinion of engineers, the current cost advantages of battery electric cars should not lead to alternatives such as hydrogen drives being written off too quickly. The fuel cell and the hydrogen direct-combustion engine remained important additions in terms of CO2 savings and market potential, said Matthias Kratzsch, head of the Auto and Transport Engineering Company (IAV), at the International Motor Symposium in Vienna – a conference on drive technology that was highly regarded among experts.

Openness to technology must be guaranteed, demanded Kratzsch. The use of hydrogen as an energy carrier and the production of green electricity are to be expanded in the coming years. “From our point of view, the debate focuses too often on the purely battery-electric vehicle,” said Kratzsch. For example, one has to take a closer look at the entire carbon footprint of the various options over the vehicle’s life cycle, from raw materials to recycling. The automobile association VDA and the Association of German Engineers (VDI) had also spoken out in favor of parallel, further research on hydrogen drives.

Fuel cells, in which hydrogen (H2) and oxygen react to form water and the resulting energy drives the electric motor, have so far primarily been used in road traffic, such as buses. Their share in cars is still very low. The main reasons for this are high costs, the lack of a dense network of H2 filling stations and the overall lower level of efficiency.

In addition, hydrogen itself must first be obtained with a lot of electrical energy by splitting water or from hydrocarbons. As with the electricity with which battery cars are “refueled”, green electricity should be used in the interests of minimizing the creation of CO2. This should be available on a large scale.

An IAV working group has now developed scenarios for the climate balance and competitiveness of the drives based on the expected German electricity mix in 2030 and with data from the Federal Environment Agency. One result: If the life cycle of the car is taken as a benchmark, there should be advantages in using “green” hydrogen, at least for larger SUVs. This need not detract from the simultaneous use of battery-only vehicles. “With all three drive variants examined, the CO2 footprint in the transport sector could be significantly reduced in 2030,” says study leader Marc Sens.

Hydrogen engines could also get ready for series production very quickly, even if they are less efficient – “and that for both heavy passenger cars and commercial vehicles”. According to the estimates, it would be possible that the drives will become competitive with battery electric drives with appropriate further development and depending on the production conditions. Conversely, fully battery-powered models would also have opportunities in the heavy-duty sector. It depends on a mixture of the variants.

However, the calculations are dependent on many boundary conditions. According to IAV, what is essential is “a rapid expansion of renewable energy production” – and the question of whether hydrogen and battery cells are produced in. For H2 cars, the previous costs are still quite high because of the large amount of electricity they need and the long chain from raw material production to running the car.

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This could change, at least in part, if the establishment of a hydrogen economy succeeds and the storage and distribution of the element become more profitable. Truck manufacturers such as or are also testing fuel cells and hydrogen engines.

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