A handful of manufacturers and start-ups, including Alpine (Renault), Hopium, NAMX and Citroën took advantage of the Paris Motor Show to unveil their vision of the future of hydrogen mobility.
We saw the Hopium Machina, the first units of which should in theory be produced by 2025 – with a new 200 kW Fuel cell technology. The Parisian start-up NAMX presented its hydrogen refill system in CapX capsule.
Why hydrogen cars have no future
Inserted in the “HUV” (understand hydrogen SUV), each of these capsules delivers 50 km of autonomy for a total of 6 capsules (350 km) to which is added the autonomy delivered by the permanent tank of the vehicle. In total, this HUV would have a maximum range of 800 km and a top speed of 250 km/h.
Citroën and Stellantis also showed a prototype of a hydrogen utility vehicle with the same capabilities in terms of power and range as thermal equivalents. Finally, Alpine (a subsidiary of the Renault group) presented a luxury hydrogen supercar concept, the Alpenglow.
In the end, all the speakers showed a vision of the hydrogen ecosystem, while forgetting an essential detail. No one has really explained how the industry will be able to overcome the two biggest handicaps of hydrogen engines: the production of hydrogen itself, and the relevance of massively launching an alternative to purely electric and thermal cars in an emergency context. climatic.
On paper, however, hydrogen only has advantages: it promises a continuous energy transition, since basically we always “refuel” in a few minutes, as with combustion engines. And hydrogen cars emit no CO2, just water and oxygen.
However, there is still a big problem to solve – which Xavier Chardon, CEO of Volkswagen France explains quite simply:
“If you look at the hydrogen yield, it’s catastrophic. It takes a lot of electricity to produce hydrogen. Maybe it will develop, there are a lot of announcement effects, especially on the production of green hydrogen, but when we compare it to an electric vehicle, it’s ecological nonsense for us. Especially for private use like yours. Today, in the short to medium term, we see no other application potential for hydrogen than for vehicles that run in a loop like buses or trucks.”
Where it gets stuck is from the production of hydrogen
Indeed, there are only two viable ways to obtain hydrogen in 2022: hydrolysis and extraction from gas and/or oil fields. Hydrolysis consists in producing hydrogen by breaking the molecules of H2O from electricity. This can be green, or from nuclear power plants for example – and concretely producing hydrogen is therefore equivalent in this case to storing energy in another form.
But the yield of the hydrolysis is a disaster. Most of the energy is lost in heat and other inefficiencies – and therefore, if we compare the production of dihydrogen by hydrolysis to lithium battery storage, it is hard not to see immediately that lithium batteries win the game hands down. .
The second method of production, extraction, also has its share of problems. A recent NASA study, for example, shows that many oil and gas extraction operations around the world also produce huge releases of methane into the atmosphere. A gas 80 times worse than CO2 in terms of effects on the climate.
In many cases, the hydrogen has to be separated from other gases or the hydrocarbon chains have to be broken to free the gas, which in both cases emits carbonaceous emissions. Developing the sector will involve injecting public and private funds into the same industry deemed to be largely responsible for global warming. Instead shift those funds to already viable clean technologies.
Risk of scattered investments and a slow energy transition
This seems capable of slowing down the transition, even though it should be accelerated. However, this lackluster balance sheet is worsened by the Fuel Cell technology which itself produces energy losses. And then we must also consider another aspect of the problem: is it really reasonable to catch up with hydrogen technologies on electric ones at this stage? The world is starting to massively equip itself with electric cars, charging stations are starting to be installed almost everywhere.
The technology is also evolving: with fast chargers, it is possible to reach a sufficient level of charge in 10-20 minutes on the latest models of electric cars, which is starting to be quite reasonable. All for autonomy deemed sufficient on a daily basis. Tomorrow, manufacturers will also offer direct battery exchange for a full battery – in an operation that should last no more than a few minutes, roughly the time that one would devote to a full tank of gas…
Where hydrogen could become very useful, on the other hand, is as soon as it is possible to achieve economies of scale – subject to the cleanest possible hydrogen production. We know for example that it is impossible to produce 100% electric airliners for the moment because of the weight of the batteries (and the non-existence of electric reactors in 2022).
Hydrogen could become a solution to separate from fossil kerosene in future planes thanks to its high energy density – while modifying designs of combustion reactors for example. Same thing for maritime transport, trains, buses… But, we understand, it seems that technology has much less future for the private car – no offense to those who are waiting to be able to run on hydrogen impatiently.