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Fuel cell or electric car: Which drive is better for the climate?

A little time? At the end of the text there is an abstract.

Fuel cell or auto-battery, which is better technology for the future? This question is shared by drivers and manufacturers. While Toyota and Hyundai rely on a fuel cell, around the VW wants to help the electric vehicle in action. Both technologies promise to make traffic more favorable for the climate – but which causes less CO2?

Toyota Mirai at the gas station


Toyota Mirai at the gas station

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Systems (ISE) has compared greenhouse gas emissions from fuel cells to the company's hydrogen infrastructure company H2 Mobility with those vehicle batteries and diesel vehicles. Above all, the study presented to SPIEGEL shows that hydrogen is not better than battery – but both are more climate-friendly than diesel.

The electric car takes diesel less than 160,000 kilometers

For the study, scientists compared the life cycle of several vehicle models, including production, operation, and recycling. The vehicle was tested on 95 kW fuel cells, 5.6 kg capacity and over 500 kilometers, comparable to the Hyundai Nexo model, and a diesel car with a consumption of 5.9 liters per 100 kilometers and a weight of 1.750 kg compared with Hyundai. Tucson 1.6 CRDi and several battery cars:

  • One with a battery capacity of 60 kWh and a consumption of 19.5 kWh per 100 km (weight: 2044 kg), which is roughly comparable with Opel Ampera
  • A 90 kWh vehicle with a range of about 400 kilometers and a consumption of 20.4 kWh per 100 km (weight: 2266 kg) similar to Jaguar I-Pace

Fresh from the factory, diesel in the eco-race ahead, as its production causes 9995 kilos of CO2, a fuel-efficient vehicle, but 16,491 kilos – and in an e-car with 90 kWh of batteries up to 22,635 kilograms. However, according to the study, after 200,000 mileage, both engines must be beaten. While at its facility 45,956 kilos of carbon dioxide, it is less for two alternatives even in the most unfavorable case: the car with battery power has so far emitted 42,416 kilos of CO2 from the current German power mix – with 39,128 vehicles fueled exclusively by natural gas . kg.

In the case of alternative drives, the carbon footprint mainly depends on the production of batteries or special hydrogen tanks and the production of electricity or hydrogen. So the diesel engine runs on a mileage of 150,000 kilometers, which is a bigger car battery – but only if the car is powered by a power mix and when the battery is produced intensively with CO2. On the other hand, car charging with solar energy generates significantly less carbon dioxide than diesel. For this comparison, researchers have calculated different scenarios for a fuel cell, but also a classic electric car:

  • For the fuel cell vehicle drive, the worst scenarios with the use of natural gas for heat production and hydrogen production as well as production of H2 have been calculated using only wind energy and blend of both methods
  • When working with a battery, we differentiate between the current mix of electricity and charge with pure solar energy

Different CO2-intensive production and disposal scenarios, or standard variants, as well as the best and worst case with very low or very high emissions are considered:

  • the production of 95 kW fuel cells in the worst case causes 7253 kilos of CO2, in the standard case 5770 kg, and at best 4399 kg, depending on the production of the required raw materials such as platinum and carbon fiber
  • The battery buildup with a 90 kWh battery capacity provides, in the standard case, expected in the mix of electricity from today's manufacturers, 11,914 kg of CO2
  • in the worst case, this value increases to 15.815 kg of carbon dioxide according to the mix of electricity from the producer countries, at best, when only solar energy is used for production, it would be 6722 kilograms

This reduces the vehicle's fuel cell better than the car – but only in comparable ranges. Because then the higher battery efficiency can not compensate for the lack of CO2 from production compared to a hydrogen vehicle, so the authors.

Smaller-sized electric cars, according to the study, on the other hand, for lower greenhouse gas emissions from hydrogen cars. The limit is here with a capacity of 50 kWh of battery and about 250 km away. On the other hand, in long journeys, fuel cells take precedence. "We need the same development of both technologies," says Christopher Hebling, head of hydrogen technology at Fraunhofer ISE.

The key real emission of the battery is the production of battery cells as well as the origin of the current for the operation, so the authors. In the case of a fuel cell, on the other hand, this is the mode of production of hydrogen and the production of car tanks. However, some factors have not been taken into account in the study, such as the use of synthetic fuels in diesel engines and the possibility of further use of spent batteries or fuel cells.

In a nutshell: The study conducted by Fraunhofer ISE shows that fuel cell cars are more environmentally damaging than a similar-sized vehicle. For e-cars cut off with small batteries better than a hydrogen vehicle. The limit is according to a study with a capacity of 50 kWh. Both alternatives, however, are more suitable for climate than diesel – if they drive more than 150,000 kilometers. Their carbon footprint, however, largely depends on battery or hydrogen production.

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