Photo by: Tetra Images

Tetra Images

Electric vs. Hydrogen: The Pros and Cons of Greener Transportation

By: Robin Fearon

Transport is one industry that needs to rapidly cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to tackle climate change.

April 19, 2021

Domestic car use alone accounts for roughly one-tenth of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. So switching to zero-emission vehicles is the only option, but electric cars are no longer the obvious choice and hydrogen vehicles could speed up the transition.

Building cars for lower carbon emissions has become a more difficult global issue for manufacturers to negotiate. Demand for new vehicles fell abruptly as people travelled and commuted less during the coronavirus pandemic. Then a global computer chip shortage shut down car plants, wiping out profits that could have been reinvested in change.

On top of that, scarcity and rising prices for raw materials, including cobalt and nickel for electric vehicle (EV) batteries, means that increasing production and meeting emissions targets will be more difficult. But it could hasten the adoption of hydrogen cars as governments favor hydrogen power alongside renewable energy to replace fossil fuels

A hydrogen fueling dispenser at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Hydrogen Center in Altona, Victoria, Australia, on Monday, March 29, 2021. Toyota unveiled its first hydrogen production and re-fueling facility in Victoria today. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images


A hydrogen fueling dispenser at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Hydrogen Center in Altona, Victoria, Australia, on Monday, March 29, 2021. Toyota unveiled its first hydrogen production and re-fueling facility in Victoria.

Photo by: Bloomberg


A hydrogen fueling dispenser at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Hydrogen Center in Altona, Victoria, Australia, on Monday, March 29, 2021. Toyota unveiled its first hydrogen production and re-fueling facility in Victoria.

The EV already has a big head start. Most car manufacturers make battery-powered or hybrid electric vehicles. Electric cars plug directly into national power grids, create zero emissions when driven and have an expanding infrastructure of charging points. But, apart from the more expensive models, they don't have the longer range of hydrogen fuel cell cars and take a long time to recharge compared to a five-minute gas refill.

Prices for producing renewable or 'green hydrogen' are expected to be four times cheaper by 2030, and virtually unlimited supplies for the gas make it an attractive alternative. Fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines are seen as the solution for zero carbon transport where batteries are either too heavy or impractical to use in shipping, air travel, rail, buses, trucks and construction vehicles.

Governments are backing green hydrogen alongside wind and solar power to do the heavy lifting in public transport, energy storage, freight and areas like steel production. That means switching hydrogen production plants from reforming natural gas to water electrolysis – water split into oxygen and hydrogen using electric current and catalysts.

Innovation in the hydrogen industry is gathering pace rapidly. Catalysts for low voltage electrolysis of hydrogen from seawater and wastewater, using solar and wind power, will vastly reduce the price of industrial production. A team of US researchers has also created a process to produce hydrogen from methane found in natural gas, that releases zero CO2 and creates carbon solids used in manufacturing.

Critics of hydrogen cars often point to the lack of pump infrastructure available – there are only around 50 public refuelling stations in the US – but existing gas stations and pipelines could be adapted and used. Countries like Japan are investing much more in hydrogen cars, providing subsidies to take domestic car travel towards zero-emission.

Electric vehicle charging spaces in a multi storey car park.


Electric vehicle charging spaces in a multi storey car park.

Photo by: Richard Newstead

Richard Newstead

But with all of the surplus offered by the hydrogen economy there is a scarcity issue that cannot be avoided – platinum used in fuel cells is in short supply. Durable new catalysts that use a fraction of the platinum in current fuel cells, plus metal-free polymer catalysts can solve that problem and allow the mass roll-out of hydrogen vehicles.

Yet despite an international push to kick start the hydrogen economy, and enthusiastic reports on the performance and reliability of fuel cell cars, auto makers themselves appear divided. Volkswagen and some other European manufacturers are ditching plans for fuel cell cars at the same time that Jaguar Land Rover is refreshing its line-up with hydrogen, joining eastern brands Toyota and Hyundai pushing the technology forward.

Critics of the hydrogen vehicle strategy also point to the fact that hydrogen combustion engines can produce the greenhouse gas NOx if not properly regulated. Plus the effects of hydrogen leaks can deplete the ozone layer, so designing the infrastructure with safety first makes sense

Hydrogen cars may be five to ten years behind EVs in terms of acceptance, but hydrogen and electric vehicles are likely to happen in parallel as governments tackle transport emissions. Accelerated research is bringing technologies that make the car a viable proposition and falling prices mean policy makers find hydrogen economy solutions increasingly attractive.

Next Up

Jesse James is Back with a New Monster Garage on discovery+

Jesse James pushes custom builds to the limit in MONSTER GARAGE, premiering January 4 on discovery+.

Flame Out: UK Brings Forward Combustion Engine Car Ban to 2030

Plans to tackle transport greenhouse gas emissions need ambitious targets to impact Earth’s rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

Tune-Up Your Engines, American Chopper Returns August 4th

Paul Teutul Sr. and Paul Teutul Jr. are back to conquer unfinished business in this brand-new 2-hour AMERICAN CHOPPER special, airing Tuesday, August 4 at 9 9P ET/PT on Discovery.

Jesse James Returns to Discovery in an All New Season of Monster Garage

Jesse James is back to create some of most mind-blowing vehicles to ever drive across television screens!

Car Industry Takes a Hit Due to Chip Shortage

Car manufacturers are facing an unpredictable future as a global shortage of computer chips, semiconductors, and rare earth metals affects traditional and electric vehicles. Large automotive factories have been forced to cut production at a time when a transition to electric models is expected to help fight climate change.

Jessi Combs, Fastest Woman on Four Wheels, Dies in Land-Speed Record Crash

Former Discovery star Jessi Combs was killed during an attempt to beat her land-speed record.

Hydrogen Power: Moving the World into Clean Energy

Hydrogen gas is the most abundant element in the universe. It is an odorless, non-toxic, non-corrosive gas that burns easily in air to produce a large amount of heat, zero greenhouse gases, and water pure enough to drink as a by-product.

Recycled Lithium-Ion Batteries are Outlasting Brand New Ones

Car batteries made with recycled materials are outlasting their un-recycled counterparts– boosting auto manufacturers’ confidence in reusable parts.

Are Electric Highways the Way of the Future?

There’s a longstanding debate on how to reduce emissions in the trucking industry. Germany is testing out a new system — eHighways, which feed electricity to trucks while they drive.

Solid State Batteries Promise Long Life and Rapid Refuel Electric Vehicles

Car companies are investing heavily in electric vehicles (EVs) to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from transport. But ramping up electric car manufacture means finding a solution to the problem of lithium battery life and slow charging times. Big firms are now pumping money into longer-lasting and safer solid-state batteries.