Opinion: Powertrain Wars – Battery or Fuel Cells?

Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester
Opinion by Energy Voice

Following in the footsteps of Norway, France and others the UK Government has recently decided it will ban the sale of all diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040. The logic of doing this is primarily based on the need to clean up the air we breathe and of course to cut back on overall emission levels of climate warming gases.

It’s also though a very useful diversion from the worries about so called Brexit. It’s saying to those silly enough to believe it that the UK is still going to be implementing important policies even when its left the EU – if it ever does.

To reinforce that impression the Government Business Secretary Greg Clark has announced the launch of a £246 million Faraday Challenge to boost expertise in battery technology.

However, the only solid commitment so far is for a £45 million ‘Battery Institute’ competition which will lead to the establishment of a “virtual” centre for battery research bringing together “great scientific and engineering minds”.

According to the Chair of the Faraday Advisory Board “It will focus our best minds on the critical industrial challenges that are needed to establish the UK as one of the world leaders in advanced battery technologies and associated manufacturing capability.”

Now I have to be honest here and say that I wasn’t actually aware the UK had anything but a fairly low level capability in battery technology and little manufacturing capacity to speak of. In fact my immediate reaction was “I wonder what Tesla, the Chinese and others all think of this?” Somehow I don’t think they’re going to see the UK as a threat especially given our pretty much 100% reliance on overseas companies to actually build electric vehicles.

But then I realised of course that £45 million is a drop in the ocean compared to the amounts being invested by some companies including Tesla which is investing $5 billion in its battery factory which rather makes the albeit very nice Greg Clark MP’s plans look like well, another attempt to engineer an air of normality pre Brexit.

Notwithstanding all that I would and regularly do argue that whilst the use of batteries to power electric vehicles is a logical if perhaps interim solution the chances of them ever achieving the same level of convenience as a petrol or diesel car are pretty slim.

Put bluntly, the attempts to get to that level of “rechargability” where batteries can take on energy as fast as you can fill a petrol or diesel tank reminds me of the prospects for fusion power. It’s always going to happen in ten years’ time!

There is also the issue of how much additional electricity will need to be generated to charge all those battery vehicles and more importantly, what the peak load will be. Current thinking (no pun intended) is that an overall increase of around 10% will be required but the real problem comes if everyone arrives home and plugs in their EV at the same time.

So called Smart Chargers could help solve this problem. Connected to the internet they can be instructed to charge at a rate which the grid will be able to handle. Of course if demand is high then your charge rate may be lower than you’d really like but that’s part of choosing to live with a battery powered vehicle.

The more I read about the trials and tribulations of battery powered vehicles the less appealing I find them particularly if they’re aimed at replacing existing conventional vehicles.

I am now pretty convinced that the real way forward for virtually all forms of transport is to use fuel cells preferably powered by hydrogen. The convenience of fast refuelling and not having to develop a complex and expensive smart grid system to deal with battery charging just makes a lot of sense.

What’s more, hydrogen fuel cell based powertrains are already being developed not just for cars but for other applications including trains, ships, buses, lorries and even forklifts.

Of course, to accommodate the increased use of fuel cell vehicles we would need to produce and store a lot of hydrogen.

At the moment most commercially available hydrogen refuellers tend to rely on inbuilt electrolyser that use grid supplied electricity and a local water supply. This will have to change and I envisage that we will eventually use renewable electricity sources such as offshore wind to power large scale hydrogen production plants.

The hydrogen will then be distributed much as conventional fuels are today but may well be “converted” to ammonia for transportation and storage and converted back to hydrogen (and nitrogen) in the vehicle using the sort of small scale “cracker” technology developed by researchers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It is quite easy to see how all this could be achieved. High capacity electrolysers are already being built by companies such as NEL in Norway, ITM Power in England and others. There isn’t a Scottish electrolyser or hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer yet but one always remains hopeful.

Offshore wind generation is now quite well understood and almost a mature technology and ammonia production is also a well established process.

Fuel cells themselves are also making fast progress in terms of efficiency and indeed in how they are manufactured and what from.

Researchers in the USA in particular are making strides in developing new cheaper and efficient catalysts rather than using platinum.

The consensus would seem to be then that fuel cells will follow the same cost trajectory as solar technology. In other word, as production increases and the technology evolves then fuel cell costs will fall dramatically.

Fuel cell technology is also being used for static generation instead of diesel and a range of other non transport applications including domestic power and heat. It is though in transportation where it’s likely to have the biggest impact.

Jeremy Creswell and I proposed to Scottish Enterprise that it should set up a project to develop a fuel cell powered tractor. If the Dutch can build a fuel cell powered race car I’m sure Scotland could manage a tractor!