Environment Science Technology

Hydrogen vs battery: which is the future of the car?

Written by Callum Murison

Climate change is all over the news at the moment. Politicians are finally starting to listen (perhaps not enough…), and more pledges are being made. It’s pretty clear that cars (and any other mode of transport powered by the internal combustion engine) will make a huge shift towards greener propulsion. But what will that propulsion be: battery electric, or some other means…?

Let’s start with the battery. Where would we be without it? Think of our phones; our computers; every portable electronic device. None would be possible without batteries. Even current cars have batteries – you need their charge to start the engine. Battery power is, in general, very beneficial. Upon delivery of a battery powered car, there will be no more fossil fuels needed (directly, anyway!) to keep it going. Furthermore, battery range is improving – significantly – meaning that the worry that electric cars simply don’t have the range to fulfil one’s daily needs is now a myth. Fast chargers now mean that it can take a mere 40 minutes or so to fully charge a car, compared to the Victorian figure of 12 hours (or more) provided by standard charging points.

But there are problems. One tends to forget about the indirect footprint in any process – and battery power is no exception. Not to mention the fact that charging electric cars requires electricity from the National Grid which, at the moment at least, is extremely likely to have been generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the huge increase in electricity demand would only exacerbate the problem – since either we wouldn’t have the generated energy to cope, or we’d have to crank up our use of fossil fuels once again. Also, battery production uses up rare and precious metals (such as cobalt, lithium and nickel), the extraction of which requires more energy in itself. Additionally, just like with phones, batteries will run down as time passes and will, eventually, need replaced. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the nationwide infrastructure does not yet support mass use of electric cars – a hugely irritating factor for buyers…

Now onto hydrogen. It suffers from much the same infrastructure issues as battery power – in the whole of the UK, there are only THREE petrol stations from which you could top up your tank with the required pressurised hydrogen. That is simply impossible to deal with on a daily basis. They are also quite expensive – just like battery-powered cars. Furthermore, one survey states that “most hydrogen is made by converting natural gas into hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide”. So, just like with battery power, the indirect carbon footprint will be quite large.

But there are also positives. The only by-product of the car is water, since hydrogen + oxygen = water. So it is a very clean form of transport. And the range of a hydrogen-powered vehicle is very good – in the region of 300 miles.

So, which is best? Quite frankly, whilst both have their downsides, they are still probably (in the long term) more environmentally friendly than what we have at the moment. At present, the infrastructure is better for the battery electric vehicle so, until that changes, I would suggest that battery is the best solution.

About the author

Callum Murison

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