Markus Heyn, head of mobility services for Bosch, has some strong opinions about the auto industry’s reliance on lithium-ion batteries. Automotive News Europe reports that he told German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung recently that the industry should look at the turmoil caused when Russia decided to shut off methane supplies to Europe. The result is chaos — soaring electricity prices, people freezing in their homes, factories unable to produce goods because of energy restrictions, and the like.
“We are currently seeing the consequences of the gas shortage for Germany and Europe because we prepared too few alternatives,” Heyn said. “In the automotive industry, we should use this occasion to ask ourselves what we can do if there should ever be too few battery cells.”
If that were to happen, “everyone would certainly like to see an alternative to battery power. But this will only exist if we have prepared it in good time.” One alternative Heyn mentioned is fuel cells that use hydrogen and oxygen to make the electricity needed to power electric motors. The infrastructure being developed for long haul trucks is well suited to act as a “backbone for supplying passenger cars,” he added.
He’s not wrong. Weren’t we all taught as children not put all our eggs in one basket? Shouldn’t Russia’s decision to use energy as a political weapon be a warning to us all?
We at CleanTechnica have been energetic cheerleaders for the EV revolution. We tend to look askance at fuel cells and with good reason. Elon Musk told us years ago that they are nothing more than “fool cells” because there are so many conversions necessary to create the hydrogen that then has to be converted back to electricity. The whole process is far inferior to just making batteries and using them to power electric motors in the first place.
Elon sees the world from an engineer’s perspective. For him, efficiency is the number one consideration. Heyn sees the world through the lens of experience. What he is really saying is, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. He is not claiming fuel cells are superior to lithium-ion batteries. What he is claiming is that as the world embraces batteries as the pathway to a sustainable future, we should have a backup plan in case things go awry on the way to our energy utopia. Common sense says there should always be a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work out. It’s hard to argue with that.
Lithium-Ion & Priorities
The primary challenge facing humanity today is to stop treating the Earth as a cesspool. We can continue to live in a world that is powered by fossil fuels or we can have a sustainable planet that will support human life for tens of thousands of years — maybe longer. But we can’t have both.
Are electric cars part of that future? Absolutely. Running our mopeds, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes on fossil fuels is a death sentence for human life on Earth. But as important as that is, perhaps an even higher priority is capturing as much energy as possible from the sun. What we do with that energy afterwards is a secondary consideration.
Right now, we have almost more solar energy than we need during the height of the day. In fact, much of it gets wasted because it can’t be put to use right away. Many believe that excess energy should be used to make green hydrogen, which will serve as a form of battery itself.
Make it today, use it to power a fuel cell vehicle or a zero emissions steel factory tomorrow. What’s wrong with that? From a Muskian point of view, it is horribly inefficient and therefore not worthy of consideration. But from a practical perspective, it may be just the ticket.
Prices for battery materials — especially lithium — have reached insane levels recently. You may be a gearhead who loves the sound of a V-8 engine, but would you still drive a conventional car if the price of gasoline was $10 a gallon? The lithium-ion battery is an amazing thing, but it may be too expensive to power an EV revolution. Perhaps those precious battery cells should be reserved for use in energy storage rather than for people to potter down to the Piggly Wiggly in their electric cars to buy groceries.
Changing Horses In Midstream
Markus Heyn may have a point, but perhaps his idea should be confined to heavy transportation — trains, ships, and long haul cargo trucks. The EV revolution is just getting into high gear with massive amounts of money being spent to convert factories to electric car production. Imagine if all those manufacturers had to stop what they are doing and start producing fuel cell powered cars! The industry would be in chaos.
Fuel cells have some distinct disadvantages for use in private passenger cars. For one thing, the storage tanks are heavy and bulky. An EV battery pack can be placed under the floor, but a tank is less malleable. They almost have to be round in order to handle the tremendous pressures involved in storing hydrogen. Fitting a round tank into a rectangular shape is a challenge, to say the least.
Fuel cells also lack the power of a lithium-ion battery pack to accelerate quickly — one of the features of electric cars that drivers like best. The cost of hydrogen fueling stations is outrageously high. Ford dealers may be up in arms about the cost of adding DC fast charging equipment at their dealerships, but that is a fraction of what adding hydrogen filling stations would cost. Finally, you can’t refuel your fuel cell car at home the way you recharge your EV.
The Hydrogen Dream
Bosch will invest more than $200 million to produce fuel cell stacks in the US at its factory in Anderson, South Carolina. Production is expected to begin and create at least 350 new jobs. Bosch ranks No. 1 on the Automotive News Europe list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide sales to automakers of $49.1 billion in 2021.
Maybe it’s time for EV advocates to lighten up on the whole fuel cell thing. For the next few years, the cost of electric vehicles is likely to remain higher than necessary due to supply constraints that keep the price of lithium-ion batteries high. There are any number of people working to find alternatives to lithium, but none are commercially viable yet. Also, there is push back taking place over new lithium mines.
Supply constraints have a way of sparking new sources of supply and new technologies, but in the meantime, Heyn’s idea that we should set an anchor to windward merits consideration.
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