Electric vehicle sales are pumping, with an ever-expanding network of charging stations around the world facilitating the transition from gas-guzzling automobiles, to sleek and technologically adept carbon-friendly alternatives.
With that in mind, the community of car and energy enthusiasts still continue to open up the old ‘Who would win in a fight, lithium vs hydrogen fuel cell technology?’.
Are hydrogen fuel cell cars doomed?
Imagine being the disgruntled owner of a hydrogen-powered car, only for lithium batteries to completely take the reigns of the industry and in effect, make your vehicle obsolete. It’s not really that wild of a notion, it’s far closer to reality than you may realize, as most electric car vehicle manufacturers consider lithium to be the battery of choice, and a more progressive development tool.
Any rechargeable device in your home, like your portable battery, your camera or even your iPhone, is using lithium. It’s clearly felt in the tech world that this is the path of least resistance for the future, but what does that mean for hydrogen fuel cell technology?
In 2017, with BMW announcing a 75% increase in BEV (Battery Electric Vehicles) sales, Hyundai came out and announced that they were going to focus almost entirely on lithium batteries. They’re not abandoning their fuel cell programme, but their next line of 10 electric vehicles will feature only 2 hydrogen options. Hyundai Executive VP Lee Kwang-guk stated, “We’re strengthening our eco-friendly car strategy, centering on electric vehicles”.
Is it likely that other manufacturers will follow suit? Well, with Tesla’s Elon Musk personally stating a preference for lithium (he called hydrogen fuel ‘incredibly dumb’), and both Toyota and Honda indicating that they will pour R&D funds into this type of battery (despite earlier hesitation), the answer seems to be ‘well, we already have’.
Toyota vs Tesla – Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles vs Electric Cars
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Do ‘refueling’ and ‘recharging’ stations hold the key to success?
Did you know that as of May 2017 there were only 35 hydrogen refueling stations in the entire US, with 30 of those in California? Compared to the 16,000 electric vehicle refueling stations already available in the US, with more on the way, it would seem that the logical EV purchaser would opt for a car with a lithium battery. In China, there are already more than 215,000 electric charging stations, with over 600,000 more in planning to make the East Asian nation’s road system more accommodating to EVs.
On January 30th, 2018, REQUEST MORE INFO, invested $5m into ‘FreeWire Technologies’, a manufacturer of rapid-charging systems for EVs. The plan is to install these charging systems in their gas stations all over the UK, though they did not disclose how many. So, even on the other side of the Atlantic, building a network of charging systems is a high priority.
With ‘Range Anxiety’ (the fear that your battery will run out of juice before the next charging point) being a common concern for EV owners, the noticeably growing network of refueling stations, including those with ‘fast charge’ options, are seeming to settle down the crowd of anxious early adopters.
Will the market dictate the winner in the lithium vs hydrogen car battery ‘war’?
If we look at the effects of supply and demand, the early clarity of lithium batteries as the battery of choice for alternative energy vehicles meant that there were a great time and cause for development. As a result, between 2010 and 2016, lithium battery production costs reduced by 73%.
If this trajectory continues, price parity is a when, not an if, and that when could well be encouraging you to take a trip down to your local EV dealership for an upgrade.
Demand for EVs instead of hydrogen fuel cell technology means that some of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers are showing a strong lean towards lithium batteries.
Hyundai, Honda, and VW are all putting hydrogen on the back burner. And whilst market demand for hydrogen is considerably lower, Toyota remains keen on fighting this battle, which they have been researching for around 25 years.
Their theory that hydrogen and lithium battery powered vehicles must be developed ‘at the same speed’ is a dogged one.
You could say their self-belief was completely rewarded by their faith in the Prius, with over 5 million global sales and comfortable status as the top-selling car (ever) in Japan, so there will be many who tune in to the Toyota line of thinking and overlook the market sentiment.
Price will always play a role in purchasing decisions, and with scalable cost reduction methods not yet visible or available for hydrogen fuel cell technology, it looks like lithium is going to be the battery that opens wallets.
Can lithium and hydrogen car batteries coexist?
Sure, they can co-exist, but ultimately one technology is going to come close to a monopoly while the other becomes a collector’s item, a novelty, just a blip in technological history. That’s just one theory of course.
Another theory is that the pockets in which hydrogen fuel cell vehicles already exist and are somewhat popular, like Japan and California, will use their powerful economies to almost force their success.
Why would they do this? Because the vehicles are far more expensive than EVs by comparison, they had to start in wealthy regions, install fuelling stations and slowly spread out into other affluent neighborhoods.
It’s a long game that relies heavily on wealthy regions opting to choose the expensive inconvenience, a feat which could arguably be achieved simply by creating the most visually compelling vehicles rather than the most efficient. Style over substance, for lack of a better phrase.
Take a look! See how Lithium powers the world…
Which will stand the test of time?
Looking at this from a scientific perspective, one might say ‘Well, lithium is limited, whereas hydrogen is the most abundant gas in our atmosphere’, and one would be correct. However, science doesn’t always simplify things. Hydrogen is really hard and inefficient to capture, and therein lies a huge obstacle.
Hydrogen fuel is hard to make and distribute, too, with a very high refill cost. The final kick in the teeth is that the technology required to capture, make and distribute all of that hydrogen is not very good for the environment, and is arguably no ‘cleaner’ than gasoline. That same technology uses more electricity in the hydrogen-creation process than is currently needed to recharge lithium batteries, and therein lies the answer to this whole debate, right?
We aren’t saying lithium batteries will be around forever, but they’re more adaptable, useful, scalable and affordable as a technology, right now.
By the time hydrogen fuel cell technology is affordable to the average consumer, we will hopefully have found a true clean energy source.
Conclusion: Will the lithium vs hydrogen debate ever be over?
Lithium is this, hydrogen is that, EVs are this and that, HFCs are that and this. The cycle will perpetuate until it becomes clear which is the definitive solution, at least that’s the belief of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who said ‘There’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my piece on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.’
To be fair though, this quote from George W Bush would beg to differ, when he is quoted as saying ‘Fuel cells will power cars with little or no waste at all. We happen to believe that fuel cell cars are the wave of the future; that fuel cells offer incredible opportunity’. Well, George, you may have been right back in 2003, but this is 2018.
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Mike is Chief Operating Officer of Dubuc Motors, a startup dedicated to the commercialization of electric vehicles targeting niche markets within the automotive industry.