Can hydrogen cars compete with electric cars?

Hydrogen could be the next big thing in the automotive world. On the way to net-zero electricity by mid-century, the International Energy Agency expects hydrogen to account for as much as 16% of road transport. Furthermore, some industry insiders believe that cars powered by hydrogen, either by burning it like gasoline or integrating it into a fuel cell, could even overtake the dominance of battery electric vehicles in the coming years. Others think that is a gross overestimation. But everyone agrees that hydrogen will likely be an integral part of the future of the transportation sector.

Hydrogen is touted as a promising green replacement for gasoline and diesel because, like petroleum-based fossil fuels, hydrogen can be burned at high temperatures. But unlike petrol and diesel, it does not emit carbon dioxide when burned. Instead, it only leaves behind harmless water vapor. That’s why companies have poured money into finding a way to revolutionize the transportation sector – responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally – by replacing traditional fuels with green hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells.

Last month, Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda said he thinks the share of battery cars in the global market will peak at 30%, with the remaining 70% taken up by hydrogen and combustion engines. BMW CEO Oliver Zipse is also optimistic about the technology as part of a cleaner transport future. “Hydrogen is the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to zero-emission mobility,” he said last year, before adding the caveat: “One technology alone will not be enough to enable climate-neutral mobility worldwide.”

There are already a few hydrogen cars on the market, both from East Asian carmakers: Toyota’s Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo SUV. But even Toyota admits that hydrogen cars have “not been successful” so far, largely because hydrogen sourcing remains a major issue, as Toyota chief technical officer Hiroki Nakajima cited in a quote to Autocar in October.

Making hydrogen is an energy-intensive process, meaning its production is sometimes an inefficient and even counterintuitive use of energy. By some standards, creating green hydrogen requires three times more electricity than would be needed just to directly power an electric vehicle. Elon Musk, head of leading electric car company Tesla, has called hydrogen technology in the automotive industry ‘fool sells’, dismissing the use of energy to make hydrogen when it would be easier to simply charge an EV battery.

Most hydrogen used in industrial applications today is ‘grey hydrogen’, meaning it is produced using fossil fuels. Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas, making it a lot cleaner (depending on who you ask). Green hydrogen is only produced using clean energy sources, but even that may not be a win for the climate as it takes up important clean energy sources that could potentially be used more efficiently and strategically in other applications. And then there is golden hydrogen, the holy grail of naturally occurring hydrogen deposits, which has yet to be successfully developed. Long story short: There’s a whole rainbow of hydrogen atoms out there, but none offer a silver bullet for cleaning up the transportation sector.

While the jury is still out on whether hydrogen-powered cars will actually be able to compete with battery-powered cars, and whether they will be able to do so in a way that is better for the environment, there is a part of the transportation industry that almost everyone agree that hydrogen can and probably will revolutionize it. And that is the shipping sector. Large industrial vehicles and ships are among the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the sector, and are also the most difficult to electrify. In this application, diverting energy to hydrogen production would actually make sense and provide a huge benefit to the environment, as the shipping sector is considered one of the most difficult to clean.

By Haley Zaremba for

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