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Opportunities, challenges of fuel cell EVs in heavy-duty applications – report

A new report by IDTechEx states that although facing certain limitations, particularly in the passenger vehicle segment, there are big opportunities when it comes to fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) for long-haul trucking or high mileage bus operations.

For the market analyst, the range and refuelling advantage for FCEVs mean that heavy-duty applications, which would require a very large battery with a battery-only architecture, actually benefit from fuel cell technology, at least in the near term.  

The energy density of today’s automotive lithium-ion batteries means that the daily range of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is limited by both the maximum weight of batteries that can be carried by a vehicle and by the available space for batteries within the vehicle.

Fuel cell systems, on the other hand, generate electrical energy to power the vehicle by means of a chemical reaction between hydrogen fuel, which is stored at high pressure in tanks within the vehicle, and purified intake air. This means that they can offer a superior energy density to battery-only powertrains and therefore deliver greater range at the same weight.

In addition to this, the report points out that the potential to refuel considerably faster with hydrogen than the time it takes to charge a large Li-ion battery means fuel cell electric vehicles offer operational flexibility closer to current combustion engine vehicles than BEV can deliver.

As an example of an OEM exploring the advantages of FCEVs, IDTechEx highlights the case of Hyundai, a company that is conducting commercial trials in Switzerland with a fleet of 46 FCEV trucks, with plans to increase this to 1,600 trucks by 2025. 

The Korean automaker has also announced upcoming FCEV truck projects in the US and orders for 4,000 FCEV trucks in China. 

“There is also some penetration for FCEVs into the bus market, with more than 150 fuel cell buses operating in Europe, 65 in the US, and more than 3000 in China. A growing order book for FCEV buses suggests demand is increasing, at least to a pilot-scale level of testing,” the dossier reads.

Challenges

As it outlines the advantages of FCEVs for heavy-duty applications compared to BEVs, IDTechEx’s document also underscores the obstacles that the technology is still to overcome.

The main issue hindering further development and adoption is the need for low-cost production of renewable green hydrogen which is essential to make FCEVs both economically viable and deliver the low emission credentials on which the technology is being promoted.

“The high cost of producing green hydrogen and its relative scarcity means that it is not currently economically feasible as a transport fuel,” the report states. “Ninety-five per cent of the hydrogen produced today is generated from fossil fuels, which whilst cheap, does not greatly improve the carbon footprint of on-road vehicles.”

According to the market researcher, the need to build hydrogen refuelling stations is also a barrier that will limit the deployment of FCEVs to those countries prepared to commit to substantial infrastructure funding. 

Finally, the paper emphasizes that there is also an inherent inefficiency in using green hydrogen as a transport fuel. 

“Because of efficiency losses transforming renewable electricity to pressurized hydrogen fuel and then back to electricity to power the vehicle, renewable electricity is likely to have more of an emission reduction impact when deployed in battery electric vehicles,” IDTechEx’s experts conclude.

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