It could be the coming battle royale for the future of the automotive sector: EVs or fuel cells?
Both technologies have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, but it remains to be seen whether one has the long-term edge over the other.
Late last month, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin revealed a leap forward in lithium-ion technology that could solve one of the electric vehicle sector’s big problems: slow charging times.
Prof. John Goodenough and senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga have developed a more reliable lithium-ion battery that charges faster, is more stable and has three times the energy density of existing technologies.
In a release, the researchers said the breakthrough has the potential to make battery-driven cars more attractive to wider markets by making them charge faster and run for longer.
“Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted,” the researchers said. “We believe our discovery solves may of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries.”
On top of the potential for EVs, being able to effectively store power from intermittent generation sources like wind and solar in batteries is widely considered one of the clean energy industry’s Holy Grails.
Compared to fuel cell vehicles, EVs have a running start, especially in Canada. In 2016, Q1 EV sales figures jumped 75 per cent over the same period in 2015, and there are reportedly 22,763 on the road in Canada according to Fleetcarma.
But in some ways, fuel cell vehicles are more attractive than EVs. Fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water as a by-product. They fuel in just minutes, much like a car with an internal combustion engine.
While brushed off by Tesla’s Elon Musk as impractical, the technology seems to be gaining ground.
Oddly enough, the oil and gas industry appears to have an interest in hydrogen succeeding, in part because natural gas is a key source of hydrogen for the fuel cells. Royal Dutch Shell and Toyota, which is looking to phase out ICEs this century, have partnered to build a network of hydrogen charging stations in California.
“When no more combustion of fuel is allowed, hydrogen will become one of the major sources of fuel, of that we’re confident,” Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s president of advanced research and development and engineering told Bloomberg.
In Canada, the hydrogen and fuel cell industry is still in its infancy. The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association says the industry has gone from R&D to commercialization, and is calling for a national fuel cell strategy. For now, there aren’t many fuel cell vehicles on roads in British Columbia (though BC Transit operates 20 fuel cell-powered buses left over from the 2010 Olympics.)
For the next few years, the two technologies will certainly coexist, in some cases feeding off each others’ successes. Whether one gains a killer edge over the other in that time remains to be seen.
By Jonny Wakefield, 23 March 2017
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This article was written for Clean Capital News a free bi-weekly publication dedicated to producing topical articles on sustainability and clean technology that advance our understanding of issues like climate change and help generate solutions for a more sustainable future.
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