Wasserstoff wird getankt

13.07.21 Fuel cells will be the game changer Author: Florian Brandau, Marc Sens, Ralf Wascheck • Reading time: 3 min.

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The CO2 emissions produced by the transport sector must be reduced significantly. Against the background of the public and political debates that focus primarily on battery electric vehicles, other potential fuels are also available for the transport solutions of the future. A discussion about hydrogen in the context of industrial policy is already taking place in the EU and in other countries such as Japan and South Korea. There is also a clear emphasis on balancing energy flows by storing energy in fuel. One obvious candidate is hydrogen.

Florian Brandau, Marc Sens, Ralf Wascheck

Climate targets, customer expectations, capital: a number of factors are leading to changes in the mobility market. The competition for the best zero-emission technology is taking place primarily between battery electric (BEV) and fuel cell electric (FCEV) vehicles. This is accompanied by a discussion about synthetic fuels, which are often based on hydrogen. But this is where the crunch comes. The process chain for synthetic fuels is longer and more expensive than for hydrogen, which means that synthetic fuels are only likely to be used where high energy densities are needed, for example in ships and aircraft.

Most car manufacturers are focusing on BEVs to provide individual transport on our roads, but we are all aware of the discussions about the range of electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells are a promising alternative for large cars and light commercial vehicles. These are often in use for long periods (for example courier companies) and have high daily mileages (for example company vehicles or salespeople’s cars where fast refueling is also a requirement).

For commercial vehicles over twelve metric tons in weight, the choice of powertrain must be based on the type of application and the specific vehicle solution. The main criterion here, alongside an environmentally friendly powertrain, is the cost, often referred to as the total cost of ownership or TCO.

Hydrogen: a long range and a short refueling time

New zero-emission technologies in a number of areas have reached technical maturity and can be used cost-effectively in commercial vehicles. Electric powertrains have proved their usefulness for short journeys and initial solutions are now available for longer distances of 200 to 300 kilometers. As the energy density of batteries increases, it will become possible to use battery electric powertrains in heavy-duty long-haul trucks in the future. However, the necessary high-performance charging infrastructure must be in place and the delivery schedules must allow enough breaks for charging.

Another zero-emission technology that is under development and on the threshold of becoming cost-effective is the fuel cell. It will be the game changer, because hydrogen as a fuel allows for a very long range, a short refueling time, and highly flexible use. Alongside fuel cells, another promising development is the hydrogen combustion engine, which opens up another route into hydrogen mobility.

Florian Brandau, Marc Sens, Ralf Wascheck

The benefits of hydrogen are obvious: it is one of the most efficient and cleanest solutions for storing renewable energy. In the future when we need to stabilize the flow of renewable energy, storage solutions of this kind will become increasingly important. As a result, there will be considerable investments in electricity grids and in hydrogen production and logistics systems over the next few years. The global energy and fuel supply chains will also undergo a major transformation. Against this background, the direct, decentralized use of hydrogen in vehicles seems to be the ideal option.

An objective overview of different powertrains

We have carried out a comprehensive study covering all the main classes of vehicle, which gives an objective overview of the different types of powertrain and the availability of the necessary energy or fuel. IAV experts investigated the probable carbon footprint of three classes of vehicle (medium-sized SUV, light commercial vehicle and heavy-duty truck) in 2030, in other words the CO2 equivalents that would be produced using a battery electric powertrain, a fuel cell and a hydrogen combustion engine. The calculations were based on a tank-to-wheel, well-to-wheel, and life cycle assessment (LCA) approach. For the LCA, the complete life cycle of a vehicle was analyzed from the extraction of the raw material and the logistics chain through to production, assembly, use, and finally recycling.

hydrogen truck

The results of the study showed that from the perspective of the LCA all three types of powertrain would allow the carbon footprint of the transport sector to be reduced considerably by 2030. It was clear that vehicles with a fuel cell powertrain, depending on the vehicle class in question, are just as climate-friendly as battery electric models and therefore make a useful addition to the mix of vehicles on the road.

It is important to note that it is not possible, of course, to take into consideration every individual user profile. Instead, a number of assumptions have to be made. One example is that while a wide variety of conventional cars are currently available, all the powertrains fulfill the requirements of almost all the usage profiles: short routes, long journeys, and driving in the city, on highways, and on freeways. As soon as you begin to look at your own personal usage profile, you generally realize that your choice of vehicle is not entirely based on the use you will put it to. Instead, other factors, such as prestige, emotional appeal, and the influence of marketing play a prominent role. During the technological transition to zero-emission powertrains, it could be possible to achieve a significant reduction in your personal transport costs and therefore in your own carbon footprint, if you choose a vehicle that is genuinely suited to the purpose you will use it for.

Reducing emissions with retrofits

In the world of commercial vehicles another trend is emerging. This is the retrofit, which involves replacing conventional powertrains with battery electric or fuel cell electric systems. In line with the requirements of the circular economy, the basic vehicle is retained and worn components are replaced with zero-emission powertrains. This not only reduces the operating costs, but also allows the emissions from vehicle production to be largely avoided.

Florian Brandau, Marc Sens, Ralf Wascheck

It is clear that there will continue to be a variety of powertrains available, and it is important that they are tailored more closely to customers’ individual needs. One of the driving forces behind these changes is the ambitious climate targets of the EU, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050. After all, we want to be able to hand over a healthy planet to our children and grandchildren.

More informations

With more than 8,000 employees, IAV is one of the world’s leading engineering partners to the automotive industry. The company has been developing innovative concepts and technologies for future vehicles for more than 35 years and generated sales of around EUR 896 million in 2020. Its customers include all the major vehicle manufacturers and automotive industry suppliers worldwide. Alongside vehicle and powertrain development, IAV became involved with electric mobility and autonomous driving at an early stage and is now one of the leading development service providers in these fields. In addition to its development centers in Berlin, Gifhorn, and Chemnitz/Stollberg, IAV has locations in Munich, Sindelfingen, and Ingolstadt in Germany, as well as sites in other countries in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.


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