The Race Between Batteries and Hydrogen to Power our World

Matteo P
4 min readJan 11, 2021

After watching the BBC Christmas Lectures, I went through a bit of a rabbit hole in finding out the potential uses of Hydrogen and its extended benefits to our carbon-sucking lifestyle. Although the idea and R&D is there, placing physicial electrical batteries is a tough challenge that can potentially only be realised in the very-long-term outlook of any aviation company. Hydrogen however, is an element that carries many surprises and benefits which can change the way we move between cities, countries and continents.

The issue with installing electric batteries into planes is the fact that they have a low energy storage capacity. This means that in order to get the power that is necessary for a plane to take off, you need to add more batteries (due to the minimal energy storage), therefore increasing the weight, and therefore increasing the power needed to lift the plane off the ground. This vicious cycle continues until someone is able to figure out how to increase the Kw per hour that a battery is able to hold. Although this idea is very far from being realised, the idea is there and is definitely something that aviation companies can look into further down the line. The use of electric batteries is very useful as we use and look at them today. Electric cars are now quickly becoming the new ‘normal’, and with range anxiety being something that we worry less and less, thanks to Tesla’s innovative chasis and powertrain layout. Aside from cars though, our mobile phones now have longer-than-ever usage times, our houses are using large battry packs to store energy that has been generated through renewable methods. In fact, the UK has generated 37% of 2020s electricity through renewable methods; whether that be solar, wind hydroelectric, and all the others. The quick advances and development in the power conservation within batteries is staggering, and the fact that cars have now become attached to this way of powering our lives, the aviation industry could be soon to follow; perhaps within the next 25–30 years or so.

There is a lot to be excited about when batteries and electrification become an ever-important strategy for any business trying to start-up in these times. For example, Volkswagen (VW) is the first company to sign the Paris Agreement in order to reduce its carbon footprint. Its new all-electric hatchback (the ID. 3) is created in a factory that is 100% renewable in the sense that all of its power comes from renewable energy sources and that it only produces electric cars. The factory in Zwickau, Germany, is hopefully one of many hundreds of thousands more to be set up by other automakers. In terms of new companies, Arrival is making all-electric buses and vans that they hope will replace the old and out-dated modes of transport that are used in the world’s cities. UPS has already placed an order of 10,000 vans that Arrival hope will be deployed in late 2021. What is more impressive however, is their idea on assembling the vehicles. Their new concept of a ‘microfacotry’ replaces all old-fashioned assembly lines with smaller ones that “can be deployed quickly — making use of existing commercial spaces and producing any type of vehicle to meet demand”. To name another, Rivian is breaking into the market of ESUVs (Electric Sports Utility Vehicle) and E-Trucks. They also have an existing order with another delivery giant; Amazon has placed an order for 100,000 of their delivery vans, 10,000 of which will be deployed in 2022, and the whole batch in 2030. The expansion of ‘battery power’ is one that will continue far into the future of the human’s everyday use. In America alone, 24% of all Carbon Dioxide emitted comes from on-road vehicles. At the rate of progress and development, America can look to cut 1/4 of its emissions in the near future if all cars went electric. That is a significant amount, when considering that the US accounted for 15% of all CO2 emissions in 2020.

Let’s now compare this ever-growing industry of battery power to hydrogen. This molecule is the smallest one in the universe, and yet holds an impressive amount of energy density. When looking at long journeys and range, the Hydrogen fuel cell trumps the measly battery pack. So much so, that aviation company Airbus has created three concepts of new aeroplanes that use the hydrogen molecule to power them. The concepts, all codenamed ‘ZEROe’ are planned to enter service in 2035, each with key characteristics that will enable the avation industry to become a net-zero industry in the near future. As previously mentioned, the burden of battry packs to fuel aeroplanes just doesn’t meet the physics required for it to work… yet. However, Chinese company automotive NIO, has created the ET7 — an FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) that can achieve an impressive 600 miles on a single charge. NIO isn’t the only automaker to take on the FCEV challenge though, as established competitors Hyundai and Toyota are launching their versions named NEXO and Mirai respectively. The use of Hydrogen to power our lives is very much dependent on the extent to which it can be applied to our everyday use. Smartphones, coffee machines, tablets and laptops will still use batteries due to their ever-increasing thinness and what consumers want — but the market for sustainable EVs is very much still in the unknown, and Hydrogen can bridge the gap between household electronics and the travel industry. Both the aviation industry and parts of the automotive one are looking the ‘H’ molecule’s direction, how long will it take others to follow?

The future of travel is very much in the hands of science, research and development — how fast can the respective technologies of batteries and hydrogen be advanced to make our travelling cleaner and less tolling on our environment? Batteries seem like the obvious victor, but extend your view to the longer-term and Hydrogen is making an unexpected appearance.