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Fuel cell vehicles replace exhaust gases with water

Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have been somewhat overshadowed by battery-driven electric vehicles, which are currently promoted as the hottest alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles by the media. Fuel cell vehicles do however have a number of advantages; not only is water vapour their only emission, they can also travel greater distances than battery-driven electric vehicles.

An FCV is in fact an electric vehicle with a battery, although this is used in combination with a hydrogen tank and a fuel cell. The fuel cell converts the fuel (normally hydrogen) into electricity and the only exhaust substance produced is totally harmless water vapour. Although FCVs have failed to make a breakthrough, at RISE there are over 60 researchers working on every aspect from developing better batteries and more efficient fuel cells, to highlighting technical issues and socially advocating the technology.

“If we are to see more fuel cell vehicles on our roads, the cost of manufacturing fuel cells needs to be reduced and the infrastructure improved. There are currently only a few isolated garages in Sweden that offer hydrogen, which makes it difficult to navigate the country in a fuel cell vehicle,” explains Anna Alexandersson. manager of hydrogen technology at RISE.

Infrastructure necessary

She tells us that developments are more advanced outside Sweden.

“Many other countries are working in parallel with a number of technologies; in Sweden, however, we often focus on one technology at a time and, right now, battery-driven electric vehicles are very much in favour. However, we have been working for a very long time to put hydrogen on the agenda and definitely believe that, as long as we resolve the infrastructure issue, there will be more vehicles on the market within a few years,” says Anna Alexandersson. 

One advantage of fuel cell vehicles is that they do not cause the driver range anxiety, as they can drive for reasonably long distances on a single tank of hydrogen. A single refuelling is sufficient for anything between 500 and 800 kilometres compared to the 300 to 400 achieved by a fully charged electric vehicle. According to Anna Alexandersson, this makes FCVs suitable for longer journeys and makes them a complement to electric vehicles and vice versa. One possible future scenario is to use car pools more extensively and that vehicles will be self-driving.

“You will probably not own your own car but will car pool more often and, when you order a pick up by an autonomous vehicle via a car pool, you may get a fuel cell vehicle for long-distance journeys and a battery-driven electric vehicle for shorter distances. As the user, you actually have no need know anything about the various energy solutions; the important thing is that your journey is comfortable and that the system selects the optimum vehicle from an environmental perspective.”

Fuel cell vehicles have lower weight

Other advantages of FCVs include lower weight and that they can be refuelled in only three minutes.

“The problem with purely electric vehicles is that the batteries are very heavy if one is to drive long stretches. The battery in a fuel cell vehicle can be smaller because it is constantly being provided with energy from the hydrogen. Hydrogen is also very light in itself. It is of even greater interest in working vehicles that are on the road all day and do not have time to charge often and do not want to carry heavy batteries.” 

Hydrogen from renewable energy

Despite causing zero emissions and its many other advantages, the FCV is not without its critics. 

“This generally relates to the possible environmental impact of hydrogen production but of course, there are many ways to manufacture hydrogen. All hydrogen offered by garages in Sweden has been produced from renewable solar or wind power,” says Anna Alexandersson, who continues:

“One advantage of hydrogen is that it can be used as a buffer in the electricity grid by producing hydrogen when winds are high and are producing plenty of electricity. This allows the electricity grid to handle higher levels of renewable electricity. Residual hydrogen from industry can also be used. In Stenungssund there is a chlorine plant that produces usable hydrogen as a byproduct.”

Hydrogen as an energy source

As well as being used to power fuel cells, hydrogen also has many other applications. Machinery, mobile telephones, computers and heating boilers are just a few examples.

RISE is working to develop hydrogen use in a number of fields and from a number of perspectives, in everything from the manufacture of hydrogen to developing fuel-cell driven products and addressing issues related to safety and infrastructure.

RISE is currently involved in a project to study the feasibility of designing a boat driven by fuel cells. Previously, RISE has also developed a goods bicycle and plant powered by fuel cells.