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Electric or hydrogen? Clean mobility has complementary technologies to rely on

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

Green propulsion technology

While the market for electric vehicles (EVs) has dramatically taken off in recent years, hydrogen fuel cell mobility is still in its infancy. There’s no denying the maturity gap between the two technologies, but Solvay believes that developing one technology while neglecting the other would be a mistake. So, we’re focusing on both.


The case for heavy duty hydrogen fuel cells

Detractors and advocates on either side of the technology fence justify one or the other as the only viable option for green mobility. In reality, batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are both capable of delivering the right level of efficiency, technically and economically, depending on the application. And considering the vastness of the world’s environmental challenges today, all contributions towards increased sustainability in mobility, like in all other areas of human activities, are worth exploring.

It's true that when it comes to cars, buying a hydrogen car remains prohibitively expensive, especially when compared to the constantly dropping cost of lithium battery EVs. But that fact alone isn’t reason enough to rule out fuel cells as a viable solution for any type of transport. “When you look at a private car that drives only about 15 to 20,000 kilometers a year, the return on investment doesn’t work,” explains Vincent Meunier, Director of Sales & Development for Solvay’s Green Hydrogen Platform. “But take a hydrogen truck expected to drive 1.6 million km in less than 10 years, and it’s a whole different equation.”

In other words, for heavy-duty traffic – trucks, trains, and even airplanes – hydrogen can represent a promising solution. In fact, shifting the focus onto these uses instead of cars might well be the game changer that speeds up the development of this technology. “Also, that’s where we can make a real difference,” continues Vincent. “Diesel trucks and trains burn vast amounts of fuel; if you replace them with hydrogen fuel cell engines, the impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be huge.”

Innovation for energy efficiency across the board

As mentioned, the real differentiating factor between electric and hydrogen mobility is their respective levels of maturity. But things are changing fast – just like they did a few years ago for batteries, thus enabling today’s battery-based EV boom. “Research on hydrogen fuel cells has been going on for a long time, but there is a renewed interest in this technology,” says Larry Hough, Senior R&I Manager for Solvay’s Batteries Platform and Solvay Research Fellow. “There is a need to improve, and Solvay is well-positioned to solve key challenges.”

“The game changer that boosted the maturity of battery technologies was market demand for electric mobility,” adds Alessandro Chiovato, Head of Program Management for Solvay’s Batteries Platform. “Elements such as energy density, safety, charging speed, and the sustainability of materials were not considered until recently. The innovation pipeline of the industry is now addressing these challenges, and Solvay plans to play a key role with our customers.” 

So while market demand is allowing research on hydrogen fuel cells to gain steam, the relative maturity of electric mobility doesn’t mean innovation has ceased here, in fact, it’s far from it. “We’re working hard to enable the trend in the entire industry towards more sustainability and efficiency, for example by increasing the energy density of batteries, improving recyclability, getting rid of cobalt or using less nickel,” continues Alessandro. “To do that, you need the right binders, solvents, conductive salts, and a host of other specialty materials.”

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“Heavy-duty traffic is where hydrogen can make a real difference. Diesel trucks and trains burn vast amounts of fuel; if you replace them with hydrogen fuel cells, the impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be huge.”

Vincent Meunier, Director Sales & Development, Solvay Hydrogen Platform

Tools to serve all areas of green mobility

As a strongly committed supporter of sustainable mobility with a holistic approach to the sector, Solvay has opted to contribute to developing lithium-ion battery and hydrogen technologies, by creating a Battery Platform and a Green Hydrogen Platform.These two platforms bring together all the relevant expertise, products and solutions we have to offer to facilitate collaboration with these industries. “We serve a different set of customers in two different realities that are actually complementary,” explains Vincent. “For one thing, hydrogen vehicles run on a hybrid system of lithium-ion batteries.”

From ionomers for proton exchange membranes to a broad range of specialty polymers, binders, electrolyte additives and future solid-state technologies, Solvay materials play a crucial role in making both electric vehicle batteries and hydrogen fuel cells more efficient, more sustainable, and safer. “We have to work on every front simultaneously,” he adds, “and creating these platforms is also a commitment towards meeting the strong demand for local production.”

Indeed, in a market historically dominated by Asian players, there is a global shift happening today, with heavy investment in the European Union and North America, both for batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for a reorganization of the entire industry. “We can estimate that by 2030, about 50% of the world’s batteries will be produced in Asia, instead of close to 100% today,” explains Alessandro. “For Solvay, this determines where we should build new infrastructure to remain close to our customers.”

Watch Hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries for mobility on YouTube.


Well-to-wheel: holistic sustainability

Making vehicles that don’t emit CO2 when they run is a good step, but efforts towards more sustainability go far beyond that. Improving the environmental profile of the materials used in batteries is one path being followed; making them lighter and more efficient (which means consuming less electricity to power a vehicle) is another.

The main environmental issue for hydrogen is the origin of the raw material. “Green hydrogen is the key,” sums up Larry. “Until recently, hydrogen was produced using fossil fuels, so you’d have zero-emission vehicles running on fuel with a large carbon footprint. The market is no longer willing to make that trade-off: that’s the tipping point for green hydrogen.”

Demand today for ‘well-to-wheel’ sustainability means taking into account the CO2 equivalent of the entire value chain, a concept that Solvay is familiar with. “When it comes to green hydrogen, Solvay’s offer includes materials for electrolyzers, especially membrane materials and solid-oxides, as well as for fuel cells,” says Vincent. “And we’re going one step further upstream with materials for redox flow battery systems and electricity storage facilities, which can benefit all industries.”

Pushing things further still, improving the footprint of clean propulsion technologies also means taking the time to think about what happens to them once the vehicle they power is no longer in use. For example, electric vehicle batteries often last longer than the car itself, which means they can continue being put to good use in their second life, “typically for energy storage purposes,” says Larry. “Our objective is to enable batteries to last as long as possible.”

End-of-life is a critical issue that Solvay is keen on bringing up with its customers. “We want to help them close the loop, and we often find that they don’t have an end-of-life strategy,” explains Vincent. “To us, the facilitation of recyclability has to be included from the design phase. We try to bring all that to the table.”