Hydrogen fuel cell cars make small gains amid EV surge

Hydrogen fuel cell cars
Hydrogen fuel cell cars have failed to notch up impressive sales figures because of the high price tag and the absence of refuelling infrastructure.

Minister of state for heavy industries Krishan Pal Gurjar made an interesting statement in the Rajya Sabha on Friday. He said that some Indian car manufacturers are working to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars. While fuel cell cars will make an entry into the Indian market through global manufacturers present in India, commercial production of indigenously-built hydrogen vehicles are unlikely anytime soon. While this is the case, the statement has raised curiosity about the technology among car buyers.

Globally, there are huge expectations around affordable green cars hitting the market, especially after most world nations committed tough net zero deadlines at the Glasgow meeting of the UN climate change body last year. It is anticipated that the world will see a transition from internal-combustion vehicles to electric vehicles in a matter of years. While battery-driven electric cars have already made great strides, hydrogen fuel-cell cars also have recorded progress in the last decade.

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Hydrogen fuel cell

Experiments on fuel cell electric vehicles have been going on for several years, but mass market vehicles started appearing only in the 21st century. The sales of hydrogen fuel-cell cars stood at an impressive 15,500 units globally in 2021. While these numbers are nothing to write home about, there was an 84% jump in sales compared with the previous year, and a 103% increase from pre-pandemic days. Compare this with the number of 6.75 million battery-driven EVs sold in 2021, which saw a 108% jump from the previous year.

The high price tag and lack of hydrogen infrastructure are the reasons for the poor sales figures of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Also, only Japanese and South Korean firms are producing these vehicles on a commercial scale with the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai accounting for 98% of the global sales.

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Honda has phased out its once-popular Clarity, while European carmakers such as Renault, Maxus, BMW, and Peugeot have entered the fray with test cars. European biggies Daimler and Volvo are experimenting with hydrogen cell technology for commercial vehicles. South Korea is the largest market for hydrogen cars accounting for more than half of the global volumes, followed by the US, Japan and Europe.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars use an electric motor to generate power. While both fuel cell cars and battery vehicles are classified as electric cars, hydrogen cars produce electricity internally. The cars get hydrogen from built-in tanks and draw oxygen from the air. Electricity is generated from the reaction and water, the only by-product, is emitted as vapor. Hydrogen vehicles also recover braking energy using an electric motor that converts kinetic energy into electric energy and stores it in a back-up battery.

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Advantages of hydrogen fuel cell cars

Fuel cell cars have several advantages over battery electric vehicles. While there is no engine noise in both kinds of vehicles, hydrogen cars can be charged much faster. They take less than five minutes to charge, while battery-driven vehicles take between half-an-hour to several hours to fully charge. Another advantage is longer range — a hydrogen tank can last up to 480 kilometres whereas battery-powered cars need large batteries that increase charging time and car weight to match this range.

The biggest disadvantage of hydrogen fuel cell cars is the lack of refuelling infrastructure, the other being the high price tag. The cars cost around $80,000, twice the price of comparable battery vehicles. Very low volumes and use of platinum in the power generating unit are the reasons for the high price. Also, the hydrogen storage occupies a lot of space, making it impossible to fit into small cars, while battery-driven cars can be found in all categories. Another challenge is the price of hydrogen, which is expected to come down in the coming years.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is suited for renewable energy requirements. However, it requires heavy investment to enhance the technology and infrastructure. Can Indian carmakers make a dent in the global market for fuel cell vehicles? There are two reasons why they may not. One is that some of the largest carmakers have already made heavy investments in the technology that Indian manufacturers will not be able to match. The second is that the Indian car market is dominated by small- to mid-size vehicles that may not be able to use fuel cell technology.

Going by the track record of Indian manufacturers that have not made any significant investment in technology, they are unlikely to venture into the heavily contested field of hydrogen fuel cells. Currently, India has no hydrogen refuelling infrastructure to support a hydrogen fuel cell car market. The only hydrogen refuelling stations are in the national capital territory region – one each in Faridabad and Gurugram. While the sale of battery electric vehicles will grab a large share of India’s car market, the mass entry of fuel cell cars is unlikely, at least in the current decade.

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Sajna Nair is a former banker. Her areas of interest are environment, art and culture.