Electric power battle: batteries vs fuel cells

Recently a whole bunch of car manufacturers presented new models to utilize renewable energy sources. Most of attention was caught by fuel cells technology, which uses hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity to power electric motor. But how do they stack up against more common battery-powered vehicles?

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The key here is to know that both these approaches are not ideal and have their advantages and drawbacks. So let’s start with the concept of electric car, which uses batteries to store energy that is used to provide juice to motor. The technology is relatively simple to understand – you have a pack of batteries (in case of Tesla Model S it’s a huge sandwich of lithium ion units), which you need to charge and be ready for their degradation over the time. In general they are expected to lose about 15-20% of capacity over the first 5 years of usage. This number also depends on amount of recharge cycles. The bigger the pack – the further you go, but the more time it’ll take to charge it.

Currently the main problem is not even range anxiety (fear that you won’t going to make it to the destination on the charge left), but the charging process itself. An ideal case – an owner has an outlet in his parking space or garage and charge the car overnight, does commuting and put it back on charge when at home. But what to do if you’re living in the city and there is no power outlet within the reach of your parking spot? Yes, there are several charge station networks, which are providing more and more points to get your car on the go, but it’s still far from perfect. And don’t forget that to fully charge the batteries it takes several hours, so if the point is occupied, it’s not like the line at the gas station – you better go and look for another one. However, going to the charging point in the first place doesn’t guarantee a free spot and unfortunately you can’t check the availability (idea for a business! šŸ™‚

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Of course, there is Tesla and its network of super fast and free Supercharger stations. But it’s a premium segment and in this case you’re expected to be living in a not the poorest suburb in a house where garage has optional home dual-charger, so you have to worry about charging your Model S only when going to another city. In these circumstances spending 20 minutes for a coffee break on a roadtrip doesn’t sound that bad.

So here we are: battery-powered electric vehicles – you may encounter a problem with the most essential procedure or buy a Tesla and skip the latter reading.

Part two – fuel cells. This concept uses an electric current made of chemical reaction when hydrogen from the tank is mixed with oxygen from the air. There are several types of fuel cell technologies, but as this isn’t a scientific paper, let’s simplify the theory for the sake of general audience. So you have a tank filled with hydrogen (sounds really explosive and it is) and combining it with oxygen that is virtually everywhere you get electricity to power electric motor without a big battery pack and through exhaust system comes distilled water and no carbon dioxides!

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All looks really nice and usually the range of fuel cell powered vehicle is on average 300-400 kms (180-250 miles) like a 60-85 kWh battery packs found in Tesla Model S. And the key advantage here is when you run out of juice, just go to filling station, 5 minutes and off you go! But there is always a “but”. You see, there are not that many gas stations with hydrogen availability. Currently the process of making hydrogen at your disposal is pretty complicated and costly. So yes, again there is not enough infrastructure. Actually that is the main reason why car manufacturers are not rushing to launch many fuel cell models – they wait for someone to build more hydrogen filling stations. Only Toyota is looking for the ways how to build them faster joining forces with external companies. That is why Toyota is so serious with Mirai hitting the market next year.

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As a result we have two different concepts how to power electric vehicles. Both of them are promising and we’re looking forward to watch their development and getting popular among car buyers.

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