Lithium Ion Batteries Vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Competing or Complementary?
The future is electric. From transportation to construction to industrial processes, many fossil-fuel-heavy sectors are now betting on clean electricity to make their operations more sustainable. And driving this change are two technologies that hold the key to emission-free electrification: Lithium Ion Batteries (Li-Ion) and Hydrogen Fuel Cells.
The two technologies harness electricity through chemical reactions, releasing zero carbon emissions. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, as the two vary in terms of lifespan, environmental footprint, energy density, and supporting infrastructure.
So, does this mean one technology has an edge over the other? Let’s find out.
Lithium Ion Batteries Vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cell: Which Technology is More Promising?
The biggest difference between the two technologies is that while a battery uses stored energy to produce electricity, a fuel cell does the same by converting hydrogen-rich fuel.
The lithium-ion batteries appeared in the markets in the 1990s and are an industry-standard in powering electric vehicles. But if recent trends are anything to go by, hydrogen fuel cells are catching up.
Here are some key differences that set the two technologies apart.
Hydrogen fuel cells last longer than lithium-ion batteries. In fact, as long as there’s a ready supply of hydrogen available, you can generate unlimited electricity anytime and anywhere. Lithium batteries, however, degrade over time and need to be replaced.
Both lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are zero carbon emitters, and therefore the gadgets, vehicles, and industrial processes they power are seen as eco-friendly. However, lithium doesn’t magically appear out of thin air. It is a depleting natural resource that needs to be mined, which, of course, comes with its fair share of carbon emissions.
Even in hydrogen fuel cells, there’s a challenge in sourcing hydrogen, which is currently mainly produced from natural gas, coal, and oil. However, using renewable electricity to produce green hydrogen via electrolysis can significantly lower its ecological footprint.
3.Energy Storage Density and Driving Range
When it comes to energy storage density, hydrogen fuel cells have the upper hand. While one kilogram of hydrogen fuel cells can pack 39.6 kWh, a battery can only store 0.15-0.25 kWh per kilogram. Coupled with the fact that fuel cells are lighter and smaller than high-load lithium-ion batteries translates to greater driving ranges, especially for heavy-duty vehicles covering long hauls.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a Li-Ion battery can power a car for up to 100 miles on a single charge. On the other hand, most hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can deliver a driving range of over 300 miles.
4.Time to Refuel/Recharge
A typical battery-powered electric vehicle (BCEV) can take up to 8-10 hours to recharge, depending on how depleted it is. Although, some powerful D.C. fast chargers can restore charge in 30 minutes. But the faster the charging rate, the greater the energy loss. According to ADAC, Europe’s leading automobile association, fast chargers can lead to an energy loss of up to 25%.
Do hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars take this long to refuel? No, it’s much faster, and a typical fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) can be up and running in less than 4 minutes. Refueling a hydrogen-powered car is as simple and hassle-free as a gas-powered vehicle. The only catch is the relatively low number of hydrogen refueling stations, which are set to scale up soon.
No system is 100% energy efficient. However, lithium-ion batteries do pretty well in this department, converting close to 77% of energy from grid to vehicle. In comparison, gasoline-fueled cars only convert about 12%-30% of gas energy to power the wheels.
Compared to BCEVs, hydrogen lags a little in terms of efficiency. We see two types of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road today: those powered by fuel cells that function just like BCEVs and hydrogen combustion vehicles that produce direct automotive force like gasoline cars. Despite being hydrogen-based technologies, both vary dramatically in efficiency.
Internal combustion H2 engines have an efficiency of 25%-30%, meaning a significant chunk of hydrogen is lost in the energy conversion process. Meanwhile, fuel cells utilize hydrogen with a much higher efficiency of 60%, though still lesser than lithium-ion batteries.
6.InfrastructureGlobal BCEVs clocked a massive 10 million units in sales in 2022. Clearly, they are already reaping economies of scale. The infra scale is also in tandem with the booming production and demand. For instance, there are 50,000 public charging stations and 130,000 charging ports in the U.S.
In comparison, hydrogen refueling stations stood at a paltry 60, of which 59 are concentrated in California and one in Hawaii. The infra gap between the two technologies is astounding, mainly due to challenges surrounding the availability of hydrogen and its distribution.
The good news is that with the growing adoption of fuel cell technology, research is underway for a safe and robust system for the transportation, storage, and handling of H2 to refuel fuel cells. The future looks promising, with the number of fueling stations in the U.S. set to increase to 4300 by 2030 and many E.U. nations planning to set up a hydrogen fuel station every 200 Km along important routes.
The Road Ahead: Why We Need Both Technologies For A Sustainable Future
From the looks of it, there’s no clear winner here, and both have their pros and cons. However, no matter how promising, one technology alone cannot do all the heavy lifting in pushing away from a high carbon economy. There is a place for both lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, depending on the end use of the application.
Lithium is highly energy-efficient and backed by a rapidly growing charging infrastructure, but it has low energy density and takes longer to recharge, making it more suited for smaller cars than large vehicles. Meanwhile, hydrogen is ideal for powering long-haul and industrial equipment because of its incredibly high energy density, quick charging capabilities, and better range.
There are a few things getting in the way and need to be addressed on priority: Increasing the production of green hydrogen, fueling stations, and safe storage and transport system, while lithium needs to be sourced more sustainably and ethically than it is now.
Despite challenges, hope is pinned on these two technologies as complementary allies. There’s a lot of R&D happening around hybrid propulsion arrangements powered by both fuel cells and batteries. In 2022, a UK-based mining giant, Anglo American, launched a prototype of their first long-haul hybrid truck powered by a 1.2MWh battery pack and multiple fuel cells.
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