There's a better solution for electric vehicles than batteries

Hydrogen fuel cells seem more appealing for zero emissions than batteries. Photo: Shutterstock.
Hydrogen fuel cells seem more appealing for zero emissions than batteries. Photo: Shutterstock.

A colleague asked me if it was worth transitioning to electric vehicles in Australia.

The answer to that question is yes, and no.

Yes in the sense that we should use electrification, because there is a good way to do it.

However, if you're talking about batteries, then the answer is, not really, no.

Range with battery power isn't the issue for most vehicles. In NSW for example, the state government and NRMA are rolling out a network of fast-charging points on the Hume and Sturt Highways that will be no further apart than 150km from one to the next. Other states and regions are also increasing the availability of fast top-up charging while your driver has a coffee break.

One reason I say 'not really' at this point is we're still digging up ridiculous amounts of coal. Looking at our most populated state again, business.nsw.gov.au says NSW still uses coal for 80 percent of its electricity needs, and worse, the Port of Newcastle is the world's largest coal export facility.

For as long as we keep powering industry, businesses and homes that way, discussions of electric-driven transport seems to be a distraction from the far larger environmental issue of pumping burnt coal into the air.

Helpfully, renewables are being added to the grid (very slowly) and are also used in some public charging stations for vehicles.

Tesla, for example, have been working to get all their Supercharger stations worldwide off the grid with solar installations and battery banks (so they keep working overnight), with Elon Musk stating on Twitter in 2019 the "Goal is 24/7 clean power with no blackouts."

But what's the alternative to batteries?

My future prediction, and I'm far from the first person to say this, is that we'll brush past batteries fairly briefly once again in terms of vehicular history, and move to hydrogen fuel cells. I say that for a few reasons.

One is, we already squandered our chance to preserve existing internal combustion engines by disregarding biofuels when they were rolled out about a decade ago.

Secondly, the cost of converting a vehicle to electric with batteries is huge, and still leaves you with older levels of crash safety. It can be done, but it's only for hobbyists and specialists, certainly not the masses.

Thirdly, is the need to mine resources to make batteries, and then recycle them en masse at the end of their life (which gets shorter with every deep discharge).

The biggest reason though, is we no longer mass-produce light road vehicles here, only trucks. And whether it's a commercial fleet or a private purchase, importers can only bring in what gets made and approved for sale, so we're going to have to follow what the rest of the developed world does regardless of any preference we may have.

HOW THEY WORK

Hydrogen as a fuel can power anything from kids toys to space rockets, and with the use of fuel cells it's the direction Europe seems to be headed to achieve zero emissions.

For the road, you can already get a fuel-cell assisted e-bicycle, Honda first leased the Clarity in limited numbers in 2008, and you may remember reading about some hydrogen-fueled public buses years ago too.

Fuel-cell drivetrains have an electric motor (or motors) to drive the wheels, and the hydrogen fuels a little on-board electric power station. The best bit, especially for long-haul transport, is instead of recharging a battery, a tank is refilled by connecting a pressurised hose. The hydrogen is produced from water by electricity (in a process called electrolysis). Hydrogen production, and distribution, can therefore be achieved with renewables (if we also renounce coal), and the only tailpipe emission is recombining the hydrogen with oxygen to make water vapour.

Being that it gets pumped in as a compressed liquid, fuel companies and franchises can also install it into their existing networks. They can then charge for it at the bowser as they do with petroleum fuels, and governments can also put a levy on it at the bowser as their current revenue model does (which is otherwise a financial challenge in terms of how to replace that revenue when road users are recharging batteries).

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.