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[OP-ED] Hydrogen: Do We Have Time?

[OP-ED] Hydrogen: Do We Have Time?
A hydrogen fuel cell semi truck (iStock)

Will hydrogen save the day in the race to carbon neutrality? You might form that impression given the widespread enthusiasm for it. And this momentum based on political will – defined by a roadmap – and accepted by industry is, it must be said, good news. For we can only hope to roll out hydrogen if the dual condition of a meeting between these two worlds is fulfilled. However, this process must be recognized as long-term development, not a sudden U-turn, and it must above all not be rushed, even though the current situation may seem alarming.

By Yohann Perrot, Innovation Director at Bontaz group

More than resource-oriented targets, performance objectives are what we need to aim for. And the course we have collectively set for 2035 is clear. Does it necessarily mean disruptive innovations, as many would like to see in the case of internal combustion engines?

A Corporate Social Responsibility

Perhaps not. Rather, we need to think in terms of technological developments in favor of CSR. Above all, we must be vigilant about the geological scale that we are defying a little more with each of our innovations, due to their speed and impact. This is the famous butterfly effect. We need to be discerning in our approach. Rather than a mass strategy, moving forward in fits and starts, why not celebrate common sense in the energy transition?

Hydrogen is a means of survival in an economy shaped by fossil fuels, which we know will dry up one day. Hydrogen also offers hope in a regulatory framework that is now requiring us to rethink mobility. Hydrogen is an opportunity in both cases but it is only one lever among others to be considered in the energy mix in order to achieve our decarbonization and sovereignty goals. It is not a miracle solution but a solution to be chosen in specific cases that demand it.

Above all, it is imperative that every technology chosen to support the energy transition be tested and challenged, in other words, pushed to its limit in order to find out where optimization lies. This process can then be the starting point for decarbonized mobility.

By Yohann Perrot, Innovation Director at Bontaz group

And this applies whether we’re dealing with batteries or fuel cells, soft mobility or heavy goods vehicles, or even off-highway applications (maritime, rail, etc.). Today the technology is almost limitless and demonstrating its usability in an extreme environment or application is not as complicated as it once was.

Feasibility, reproducibility and sustainability are the criteria that must be addressed in addition to the question of costs and accessibility. Of course, you could give a 2 CV engine the power of a Ferrari but
would it make sense?

Fuel Cell

Let’s take the example of the fuel cell: the best way of using it is as a range extender because this provides an optimum stabilized operating point for the cell that guarantees both good efficiency and satisfactory service life. This is what makes buses, trucks and trains good candidates for hydrogen.

In contrast, a private car puts the technology under strain as it undergoes frequent torque changes. It’s not impossible to apply it to a car and it has been done (Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes, etc.) but at what cost?

There are also situations in which it won’t make sense to force the use of electric batteries because the charging points or infrastructure will be inadequate, so we will need to opt for the flexibility of hydrogen. The context and application environment should be the standard for deciding whether to use hydrogen or an electric battery.

And let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are not interchangeable because they are simply not comparable. Unlike a battery, hydrogen is not a mode or even a source of energy, but an energy carrier.

Today, there is no holistic method for calculating an overall balance, from the production of raw materials to the end of the vehicle’s life, and quantifying the impact of CO₂ emissions according to the energy mode chosen. An approach based on maximizing efficiency, following the “well-to-wheel” principle, leads to a decrease in intermediate energy transformations. But this would not be defensible in all situations.

We cannot equip every vehicle with batteries galore, or the application itself will suffer. Taking the example of a truck, the aim is not to change the use of the vehicle by sacrificing the payload in favor of heavy batteries in the tractor unit.

For hydrogen and battery alike, use must always be the central concern, without giving in to technological overkill or engaging in an absurd energy-saving competition.

Making Hydrogen as Accessible as Possible

Today, we need to think about making hydrogen as accessible as possible by joining forces with other manufacturers to reduce initial costs and make it affordable to produce and use. Therefore, some big groups have tackled the subject by asking the right questions in order to invest sustainably: how can we transfer a proven technology from aerospace and apply it to daily road use?

Finally, all the manufacturers have gathered around the table to solve an equation with two unknowns: how can we use hydrogen if it isn’t being produced? Why produce it if we’re not using it? As time goes by, all the players involved are increasingly coming together to tackle this issue.

The rollout of hydrogen must be guided by environmental concerns and be reinforced by inspired collective action in both production and use. As an automotive supplier, we are committed to developing standardized technological solutions that support this CSR drive. And we are thinking about ways to make our products lighter based on common sense principles. To this end, our approach to supporting our partners through these changes is suggestion-based rather than prescriptive.

So Do We Have Time?

What we are experiencing is not really a 180° turn but a coherent technological development. And this time, we’re finally thinking about the planet – about time, too! Let’s make sure we don’t exacerbate the disruption to the machine by taking action in a hurry (to alleviate the unpleasant feeling that we’ve already overshot our trajectory), without first engaging in a global process of reflection, which we need to take the time to set up properly in order to head in the right direction.

For throwing ourselves at levers such as batteries and hydrogen without having worked on the root causes of energy expenditure would represent little progress in the responsible use of these technologies. The only change to be made right now is a change in use and the mass to be put in motion for each journey.