The race to decarbonize on-road vehicles is undoubtedly being led by battery-electric powertrains. However, the superior energy density of fuel cell systems, when compared to today’s Li-ion battery systems, means that they can deliver a greater range for the same system weight. Greater range, combined with refueling times considerably faster than battery charging, have led many to suggest that fuel cell vehicles are the zero-emission solution for long-range applications, especially long-haul trucks.
In the truck market, there are several fuel cell models in testing, with the likes of Hyundai, Toyota, Nikola, Hyzon, and Daimler looking to deploy the technology in the not-too-distant future. In the passenger car market, Toyota and Hyundai continue to be the only manufacturers offering series production FCEV, with their Mirai and Nexo models, respectively.
There is plenty of ongoing work to improve the design of fuel cell systems for automotive applications, but the greatest challenge for future sales growth is arguably not the technical feasibility of designing fuel cell electric vehicles but instead the availability of hydrogen fuel and refueling infrastructure. The lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure has hindered fuel cell vehicle rollout for at least the past decade. However, several regions, including Japan, Korea, Germany, California, and China, are supporting initiatives to build hydrogen refueling station infrastructure that could see this change.
Today, the hydrogen fuel used in transportation is primarily grey hydrogen produced by steam methane reforming of natural gas, which IDTechEx analysis indicates offers, at best, a very limited CO2 emission reduction over modern combustion engines. Several recent announcements have been made about funding support to produce low-carbon blue and green hydrogen. In September 2022, the EU approved $5.2 billion in public funding for green hydrogen projects, and the U.S. announced plans for a $7 billion investment to establish up to ten regional hydrogen hubs.
However, at this stage, neither the cheap renewable energy generation resource required to produce cheap green hydrogen nor the carbon capture and storage technologies required for blue hydrogen have been demonstrated at a scale that can deliver low carbon hydrogen with a pump price competitive with diesel, petrol, or electric charging. Development efforts are likely to take considerable time and require significant investment.
Fuel cell vehicles are attracting attention, but they are currently expensive to buy, expensive to operate, and the hydrogen fuel and refueling infrastructure is not widely available to support them. And although fuel cell powertrains hold a range advantage today, the continued wait for a point of viable commercial deployment means rapidly improving battery powertrains are eroding this advantage. The long-range niche for fuel cell vehicles will continue to shrink the longer the wait for infrastructure and cost-effective, low-carbon hydrogen fuel. 2023 is likely to be a difficult year for fuel cell vehicles, with high gas prices worldwide leading to high grey hydrogen prices.