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Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and Fuel Cell EVs Are Both Key in Achieving Sustainable e-Mobility

Overview

When it comes to the future of e-Mobility, many people tend to view Battery Electric Vehicles and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles as an either/or proposition. However, a long-term sustainable approach to e-Mobility will need both of these complementary technologies to play important roles.

Here’s a Quick Overview of Battery EVs and Fuel Cell EVs:

Electric Vehicles (EV):

EVs can be categorized into four types:

  • Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) that use only electric power and are recharged by plugging them into a charging source.
  • Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) that combine a start/stop electric motor to get the vehicle moving with an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) for higher speed operation. In HEVs, the electric motor battery is recharged by movement of the vehicle.
  • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) that are similar to HEVs with the added ability to charge the electric motor battery via plug-in.
  • Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) – will be discussed in the next section.
The first three EVs above all use batteries to drive the electric motors. How the batteries are recharged has a significant impact on the vehicles’ driving range.

HEVs continually recharge the onboard battery while in motion and relies on the ICE using conventional gasoline for delivering extended range. This dependence on fossil fuel ICEs limits the ability of HEVs alone to achieve e-Mobility sustainability goals. PHEVs provide some flexibility by enabling the external charging of the batteries, but they still have an ICE used for some operation, thereby not fully eliminating emissions.

On the other hand, all-electric BEVs only have electric motors with onboard batteries that are charged by external charging sources. BEVs have great potential in achieving sustainability goals, however one of the primary drawbacks to full widespread adoption is the limitation of a BEV’s driving range due to depletion of the battery charge. Although battery technology keeps improving, today’s BEVs are typically limited to driving ranges of 150 to 300 miles because of practical size and weight limitation as to how big of a battery array can be accommodated in a passenger vehicle.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles:

FCEVs combine hydrogen stored in an onboard tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, with water vapor as the only by-product. The most common type of fuel cell for vehicle applications is the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. The electricity from the fuel cell is then used to power the vehicle’s electric motor. Refueling is fast and simple if there are available hydrogen refueling stations.

Tradeoffs of BEVs and Fuel Cell EVs:

Both technologies offer sustainable alternatives to internal combustion engines, and both use electric motors to achieve that goal. The difference is, BEVs use energy stored in a battery, whereas FCEVs use stored fuel (hydrogen) that reacts to produce energy.

Driving Range: As discussed, BEVs have significant driving range constraints due to limits on the size of battery that can accommodated onboard the vehicle. BEVs also are limited by the amount of time it takes to recharge the onboard battery. In contrast, FCEVs can be refueled with hydrogen in the same manner that today’s ICE powered cars are quickly refueled with gasoline.

Recharging/Refueling Infrastructures: At the present time, BEVs have the edge because of significant ongoing investments by governments and EV manufacturers helping to build networks of recharging stations. BEVs also are typically recharged via the owners’ home electrical system, with an overnight charge routinely bringing the battery to full capacity. On the other hand, there is virtually no widespread infrastructure of hydrogen refueling stations for FCEVs. This severely limits FCEV consumer adoption, especially outside of a few urban environments that have focused on developing hydrogen refueling options.

Complementary Applications for BEVs and Fuel Cell EVs:

Given the differences between BEVs and FCEVs and the inherent advantages of each, real-world applications are beginning to sort out into different sectors that can most benefit from one or the other. Here are some examples.

  • Localized Commercial Transportation with Fuel Cell Technology – a growing number of jurisdictions such as transit authorities, school district, delivery services, and others are turning to fuel cell powered buses, trucks, and vans. They achieve all the clean advantages of fuel cells but are not hampered by lack of hydrogen refueling stations because all the vehicles return to a central location for refueling at the end of each shift.
  • Large Transport Vehicles – fuel cells are also considered a viable solution for many large transport applications such as trains, barges and some trucking applications where the vehicle can carry sufficient hydrogen fuel onboard to avoid the need for frequent refueling stations along the routes being traveled.
  • Warehouse Vehicles – one area that is already seeing significant growth in fuel cell usage is for forklifts uses in localized settings such as warehouses. Using localized fueling stations, many companies have found significant time and cost savings. For example, charging forklift batteries requires 15 minutes per shift as compared to 2 minutes for hydrogen refueling and avoids the power degradation that is seen with batteries during the second half of each charge cycle. There are currently over 35,000 fuel cell forklifts in use in the U.S.
  • Use Battery EVs for Most Consumer Automotive Requirements – With the rapidly growing adoption of EVs for personal transportation needs, combined with the expansion of charging station infrastructures, it is anticipated that BEVs will be the primary consumer choice, at least over the near term.

Considerations Regarding the Sources of Electricity or Hydrogen:

From a sustainable e-Mobility perspective, it is also important to consider how the “feedstock” sources of electricity and hydrogen are being managed and to access carbon impacts of upstream sources.

For example, even the most efficient BEV is not fully sustainable if the electricity it uses was produced by conventional coal fired generators. Similarly with fuel cells, if the hydrogen produced uses carbon emitting electrolysis processes, the FCEV is not truly sustainable. Therefore, in the long run, fully sustainable BEVs and FCEVs will both depend on upstream processes that use clean, renewable sources.

Summary

In the final analysis, both Battery Electric Vehicles and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles will likely play key, complementary roles in the achievement of sustainable e-Mobility goals. Along the way, it will be critical to both continue developing a full range of enabling technologies and to take a holistic approach to the intelligent deployment of EVs and FCEVs in specific applications where they can have the most impact.

As a long-time innovator and trusted supplier to the automotive, transportation and energy industries, Interplex has played a key role in developing underlying technologies including efficient batteries, motors, power distribution systems, fuel cell components, and advanced assembly processes.

Industry leading Green Energy innovations from Interplex include the Cell-PLX battery interconnect system that enables flexible design and production of robust EV battery modules and the high-precision Bipolar Plate technologies that form the heart of advanced Fuel Cells.

Interplex is a highly committed, global participant in the efforts to achieve sustainable e-Mobility goals and plays a key, forward-looking role to help industry partners and the general public understand the stakes, tradeoffs, and opportunities that exist across the whole spectrum of sustainable solutions.
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