5 May 2022
by Craig Durham FIMMM

The charge of the electric light brigade – batteries or hydrogen for transport?

Craig Durham FIMMM weighs up the looming battle between batteries and hydrogen to decarbonise transport.

As the world wrestles with the challenge of decarbonising road transport and weaning drivers off fossil fuels, a key technology battleground is emerging, particularly in the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) market – electric battery or hydrogen tank?

Like those great tech battles of the past – AC versus DC power grids, oil versus coal-fired steam ships, and VHS versus Betamax video cassettes – may the ‘best technology’ win, but not without a helpful bit of lobbying and spin.

Thomas Edison’s DC and George Westinghouse’s AC electricity distribution systems fought the so-called battle of the currents in the late 1880s as the electrification of the US gathered pace. High voltage AC distribution was technically the better option as, unlike DC, it could be transmitted over long distances and didn’t suffer a diminishing current the further along the line the user was located.

But Edison had invested heavily in DC systems and was happy to promulgate public concern over several deaths by electrocution from pole-mounted high-voltage AC lines. He went so far as to lobby for the first electric chair to be supplied by a Westinghouse AC transformer, in a grisly attempt to ‘prove’ how dangerous AC could be. But while it was relatively easy to put high-voltage lines on taller pylons, ‘you cannae change the laws of physics’, and very soon AC became the power distribution system of choice.

Come the 20th Century and a new battle was being fought within the Royal Navy high command between coal or oil-fired boilers for Britannia’s fleet. As a liquid, oil is much easier to store, pump, transfer and burn than coal. Refuelling could be done in hours rather than days, even while on the move, but, at the time, Britain had plenty of domestic coal and the only proven oil reserves were on the other side of the world, presenting a serious security of supply issue.

Winston Churchill, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty at the time, passionately advocated the technological advantages of oil over coal and mitigated the supply risk by taking a 51% stake in the Anglo-Persian oil company (later BP) that had recently made a huge discovery in Iran.

Fast forward to the 1970s and the new-fangled home video recording equipment needed suitable magnetic tapes. Sony’s Betamax tapes were smaller and had better picture quality, but were limited to 60-minute duration, compared to JVC’s VHS two-hour run time. This allowed whole films to be recorded, with a much wider choice of home rentals, so it was not long before Betamax fell by the wayside. JVC had successfully identified that the most important function of the video recorder was run time and focused on that above all else.

Safety, security of supply, refuelling time and range – sound familiar in the context of motor transport? Electric batteries seem intrinsically safer than a high-pressure tank of hydrogen in the boot, although it is rarely mentioned in the multitude of online articles comparing the two. Then again, perhaps it is no more dangerous than a tank of highly flammable liquid, and we all seem comfortable enough with that.

 Security of supply is very much in the news and if the conflict in Ukraine has taught us anything, it should be how fragile a supply chain can be. According to BloombergNEF’s (BNEF) global lithium-ion battery supply chain ranking, China has 80% of all battery cell manufacturing capacity today. We need to be careful that we don’t just replace reliance on Russian and Middle East oil and gas for Chinese battery replacement. The critical material for the hydrogen fuel cell catalyst is platinum, a still rare but geographically a more widely dispersed element.

Range is important but depends on what the vehicle is for and the proximity of charging or refuelling points. There is a huge difference between running a fleet of day-time delivery vans over short distances from an inner-city depot to an overnight 40t HGV taking goods from Dover to all points north.

Assuming that both the electricity and hydrogen supply are carbon free (not that easy where hydrogen production is concerned), battery electric vehicles (BEVs) currently have the edge over both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and hydrogen internal combustion engines (ICEs). Data from IDTechEx quoted in The Times newspaper reveals that, in 2021, there were just over 15,000 hydrogen FCVs sold compared to 4.6 million BEVs worldwide.

But the technology and business case for what represents ‘best technology’ today is continually evolving, and I believe that unlike those behemoth battles of the past, there is not necessarily an outright winner in the motor transport stakes. Instead, a horses (power) for courses approach needs to be adopted – BEVs for personal transport, taxi fleets and short-haul low-to-medium tonnage delivery vans; FCVs for bus and coach transport; and hydrogen ICEs for high load, heavy duty applications in road haulage. It’s going to be interesting to see where this particular charge ends up.


Craig Durham FIMMM