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Oct 23
Fuel Cells vs Batteries: The future of EVs has space for both
A latest report from the IPCC has warned the world that climate change is now a ‘Code Red’ emergency that requires immediate and transformative action before the situation becomes irreversible. Though the political economy of fossil fuels means that this will be no easy task, one thing that is clear is that renewable energy and green technologies offer clear solutions to help reduce global emissions. While it is often common to pit new and competing technologies and predict which is likely to become the industry standard, the scale of the climate change problem means that we are likely to need multiple technologies in conjunction with one another. This is true for the transport sector and electric vehicles - most people think that battery-powered electric vehicles (BPEVs) are the only kind of EVs but there is another competing technology: hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Though the technology is a few years behind the progress of BPEVs, FCEVs offer unique advantages that mean that they may have a place in a diversified response to climate change.

Though both technologies propel vehicles using electricity, the actual mechanisms are quite different. With BPEVs the electricity is generated at a distant power plant and distributed through the grid to charge the batteries driving the motors. With an FCEV, hydrogen stored in pressurised tanks is fed into an electrochemical reaction where it combines with oxygen from the air. It is this reaction that produces the electricity to power the electric motor. Hydrogen cars thus have the characteristics of both electric cars (in the source of energy and type of motor) as well as conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles (they both have tanks that require refuelling).

The natural question is whether there is any reason to invest in a new technology that will require a dedicated refuelling infrastructure when so much progress has been made on BPEVs. FCEVs actually offer clear advantages over BPEV as fuel cells have a much higher gravimetric energy storage density than lithium-ion batteries. This means that, unlike lithium-ion, increasing the range of FCEVs does not come at the cost of additional weight. Generally speaking, when it comes to higher weights, higher range and higher speeds - FCEVs outperform their battery counterparts. Refuelling FCEVs is also comparable with ICE vehicles and only takes a few minutes, compared to the long charging times of BPEVs. This can be pivotal to those who have neither the time nor the resources or space to charge a parked car for extended periods. Finally, there is the question of the chemistry itself. FCEVs are powered by hydrogen, the third-most abundant element on the surface of the Earth, and their only emissions are water.
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