In the buzzing electric vehicle world, there’s a long-standing and unsettled debate over the ultimate zero-emission energy source: lithium-ion battery or hydrogen? The “battery” school has so far dominated the electric vehicle market, with Tesla claiming more than 80 percent of EV sales in the U.S. and a growing number of carmakers jumping on the battery bandwagon.
But those believing in hydrogen have made substantial progress, too. Pheonix, Ariz.-based Nikola Motors went public earlier this year and is gearing up to roll out a hydrogen fuel cell-powered semi-truck and a pickup truck in 2021. The world’s first hydrogen-fueled passenger plane recently took to the sky. And last month, another hydrogen mobility startup, California-based Hyperion Motors, debuted a dashing supercar called XR-1 that touted unbelievable specs: it has a driving range of 1,000 miles, can recharge in under five minutes and can hit speeds of up to 225 miles per hour.
“Instead of just going 400-mile-range or something close to what a battery electric car could do, let’s build a car with a 1000-mile range, because that’s possible with the technology we have,” said Hyperion co-founder and CEO Angelo Kafantaris.
Founding the company nine years ago with a team of veteran aerospace scientists and engineers, Kafantaris describes Hyperion as “primarily an energy company.” The startup has three divisions: automobile, energy and aerospace.
In a recent interview with Observer, Kafantaris went into depth about why he believes that hydrogen is the future of renewable energy, whom the XP-1 is made for, and his thoughts on the hydrogen-battery debate.
A lot of the people on our founding team have backgrounds in aerospace, so we knew that hydrogen fuel cells are the future of energy. That’s also why our initial focus was on building hydrogen charging stations.
All the other automakers were doing things that were only incrementally better than electric. We knew that to really tell the story of how great hydrogen is, we needed to be transformative and astronomically better. So we said, let’s build a fuel cell car to tell the full story of hydrogen. And that’s the XP-1.
That XP-1 supercar is indeed impressive. Can you tell me more about the technology behind its insane specs?
This vehicle has multiple pieces of lab-proven hydrogen technology from NASA, some for light-weight structures, some for optimizing energy density and how do you store it biometrically. Essentially, what we do is take some of NASA’s newest technologies that have been proven in a lab and try to prove them in our cars.
The XP-1 will come in two versions. There will be sort of a base model and a more advanced model, which really incorporates the NASA technologies we just talked about.
Are these cars for sale? If so, how much will they cost?
Yes, they will be for sale. We haven’t finalized the pricing just yet. Of course, these technologies aren’t cheap. It will be an expensive car, but it really showcases what we could do using the latest aerospace-grade hydrogen technology. And more importantly, that’s how the technology will trickle down to our future vehicles, which will be lower in cost.
Costs aside, what makes hydrogen a better energy source than batteries?
There are six key things about hydrogen that make it better than batteries: range, refuel time, longer life, recyclability, endurance, energy density.
We built a car that has four times the range of a typical battery electric car and can charge in three-to-five minutes. You can’t do the same with battery vehicles. If you charge a battery too quickly, it very much destroys it because of high heat and high voltage.
One thing many people don’t pay attention to is a car’s longevity. Our vehicles last between 15 and 20 years. A battery electric vehicle has 500 to 800 charge cycles and, depending on how you drive it, it lasts seven to ten years.
Another thing is endurance. Battery electric vehicles perform well in sunny California where it’s 72 degrees year-round. But I come from the Midwest, where it’s freezing cold for a large chunk of the year. Hydrogen thrives in very hot and very cold climates, which is another reason it’s used in spacecraft.
And lastly, and probably my favorite, it’s energy density. Hydrogen is the lightest element in the universe. That means you’re not paying an insane weight penalty for most big batteries in a car. And the less something weighs, the less energy it takes to move it. Our vehicle is 156 percent more efficient than the leading battery vehicles.
One of the biggest criticisms of hydrogen fuel cells is about its energy efficiency, because it takes a lot of energy to separate hydrogen from water before you can utilize it. What do you make of that?
There are two ways to get hydrogen. The first is electrolysis, or water splitting. Many people think that the process is wasteful. But actually, when you combine the energy created during electrolysis with solar or turbine technology for something else, that energy is almost free because you can’t store it in any other way.
The other way to get hydrogen is by breaking up natural gas (CH4). You heat it up and break apart carbon and hydrogen. We’ve found that this process has a 90 percent energy efficiency, because you can produce hydrogen in mass quantities.
What aspects of hydrogen fuel cells do you think are the least communicated to the public?
If people were to read a children’s book version of electric vehicles, battery vehicles are easier to understand. But once you’ve moved to the “college-level” book, you start to realize that hydrogen, not batteries, is the solution. It’s expensive to store mass quantities of energy in batteries, whereas hydrogen can do that easily.
There’s not even enough lithium in the world to create a battery electric vehicle for everyone. On top of that, that lithium is not located in but a handful of places. So you’re really creating a geopolitical nightmare similar to the oil industry. I love battery technology because it has enabled the automobile industry to cross that initial hurdle of electrification. But ultimately when it comes to creating a car, hydrogen is the only way because the gravimetric energy density and all the things that we just talked about.