Hydrogen or battery? Advantages and disadvantages of both drive concepts from the perspective of the transport industry

In the passenger car sector, e-cars in particular seem to be experiencing a boom. The majority of commercial vehicles, on the other hand, continue to be fueled with diesel – even though a rethink has already taken place here in recent years and alternative drive concepts are increasingly coming into focus. When we talk about sustainable mobility, we usually refer to the battery as the drive concept. The figures bear out this trend. In Germany, there were more than one million registered electric cars on the roads at the end of 2022. No wonder, then, that other drive concepts often take a back seat – and rightly so? And which concept makes sense for use in the transportation industry?

We have devoted ourselves to the question and show you the most important characteristics, criticisms and benefits of the two drive concepts.

Hydrogen drive – a definition and a look into the future

Hydrogen vehicles, or rather fuel cell vehicles, are also electric vehicles, because an electric motor is also installed here. In contrast to the “normal” electric car, where the electricity from the tank is stored in the battery, the integrated fuel cell of the hydrogen car generates the electricity itself during the journey and stores it in the battery.

But from the beginning – what actually is hydrogen and how can we use it for us?

 width=Hydrogen is the most abundant and smallest chemical element. To produce hydrogen, a large amount of electricity is needed – ideally from renewable energies, because only then do we produce green hydrogen. Green, gray, pink, blue, turquoise and white – the different “hydrogen colors” provide information about the production of hydrogen and the greenhouse and pollutant emissions that are produced in the process. This is why, in the context of sustainable mobility, there is talk of so-called green hydrogen, which is produced in a CO2-neutral way by the process of electrolysis of water. In electrolysis, also known as power-to-gas, water is split into oxygen and hyd. Only renewable energy sources are used in this process to ensure climate neutrality.

With the help of the fuel cell installed in the vehicle, electric power is produced from hydrogen by reversing the electrolysis process. Hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen react to form water, producing heat and electrical energy. The electrical energy generated is used to drive the electric motor.

Hydrogen is now regarded as an all-round talent, because it not only provides a sustainable drive for the electric motor. Various processes in steel production or the chemical industry, for example, can be made more climate-friendly thanks to hydrogen. The Federal Republic of Germany is also promoting hydrogen technology and initiatives to advance it. In addition, with the help of international cooperation, opportunities are to be created to produce sufficient electricity from renewable energies for the production of hydrogen.

Is hydrogen the future of the transportation industry?

 width=Freight traffic is growing continuously, not least due to globalization. This may be an indication of a country’s well-functioning economy, but it is nevertheless a burden on our environment. Which means that especially in this sector CO2 emissions have to be reduced significantly.

Hydrogen is one possible propulsion option and is being hotly traded, especially in the transportation industry. Especially because trucks have to cover long distances and therefore need large ranges. Hydrogen-based fuel cells can enable precisely these long ranges, without intermediate stops and with short refueling times.

Hydrogen technology is being continuously optimized. For example, the further developed prototype of the Mercedes-Benz GenH2 truck was on test routes. After several weeks of testing and hundreds of kilometers, the heavily loaded truck was subjected to extreme situations and put to the test by development engineers from Daimler Trucks.

Even though hydrogen technology seems to be a good and sustainable drive concept, especially in the transport sector, a lot of research will still be needed. After all, this sector is primarily concerned with efficiency, and that is what the future drive system should be able to offer.

The battery-powered truck – a definition and a look into the future

Unlike hydrogen technology, the common electric car often doesn’t require much explanation. Anyone buying a new car today is usually at least considering the purchase of an electric-powered vehicle.

But what about in the transportation industry?

Will we soon see more and more e-trucks on the highways?

First, let’s take a look at the technology. The e-truck is not fueled with fuel, but with electricity that is stored in the vehicle’s built-in battery. There are different types of magnets in the electric motor, and when the electric motor converts electrical energy into mechanical energy, magnetic fields are generated. The energy of the battery permanently changes the poles of the magnets and the rotor is driven. The rotor is the moving part of the electric motor, which then rotates around its own axis and this rotation sets the wheels of the vehicle in motion.

Hydrogen vs. Battery – in comparison

The core of the electric vehicle is the battery. The lithium-ion battery currently best meets performance standards – and performance, safety and functionality are what matter for the e-vehicle’s battery. At the same time, vehicle manufacturers also need to keep an eye on the cost of the battery, because currently the battery is one of the most expensive components of the electric vehicle. Incidentally, the lithium-ion battery has been used successfully for a long time, for example in smartphones, tablets, laptops or cameras.

  1. Efficiency

A smooth supply chain without interruptions and delays are elementary in the transportation industry – efficiency is therefore an important criterion. According to a study by the Berlin-based International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT for short, the battery-electric truck is more efficient than a hydrogen-powered truck. One of the reasons for this is the lack of space in the truck, as this means that only a limited amount of hydrogen can be stored, which significantly reduces the range. So there is still room for improvement here for the possibilities of hydrogen propulsion. In addition, the energy loss with a hydrogen drive is higher than with a battery drive. The loss occurs during electrolysis, storage, and subsequent conversion to electricity.

  1. Time

When it comes to the time factor, the hydrogen vehicle comes out ahead. Within a few minutes, the vehicle is refueled and ready for use. However, this is only the theory – in practice, there is a lack of hydrogen refueling stations. In contrast, there is a well-developed infrastructure for e-trucks. While charging takes longer, especially in the transportation industry, refueling should be possible nearby.

  1. Costs

Both the hydrogen vehicle and the battery-powered truck cost significantly more than trucks with an internal combustion engine – but both alternative powertrains are subsidized. However, the selection of hydrogen vehicles is still small and the vehicles are only produced in small numbers. As a result, e-vehicles are generally not as cost-intensive as the hydrogen vehicle. In addition to the purchase costs, regular refueling must also be taken into account. Here, the e-vehicle performs better, because hydrogen still costs twice as much as electricity, at least for the time being.

A conclusion

Hydrogen technology is a promising option for storing green electricity and using it for mobility. At present, however, the use of a battery-electric drive is more convincing, certainly also because development here is more advanced. We can therefore look forward to future developments – in the field of battery-electric drives, but above all in the field of hydrogen.


Janine Wolff
Get insights from Janine Wolff, a creative business economist and digital enthusiast. Combining economic expertise with a passion for logistics, Janine delivers top-notch content on a regular basis for Saloodo!.

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