Future of transportation – electricity and hydrogen

Transportation produces about 40% of the Nordic countries’ greenhouse gases, and only about 12% of the energy used in transportation is fossil-free. In passenger cars, the emissions reduction solution seems to be electric motors, but even the most efficient electric batteries are still inadequate for the needs of trucks, ships and aeroplanes. Something more – hydrogen, for example – is needed for these transportation modes to be emission-free. Electricity can be used to produce emissions-free hydrogen from water. Clean hydrogen can also be further refined into transportation fuels that have no carbon footprint. Could this be the solution? What does the electric future of transportation look like?

Climate change mitigation will not succeed without reducing also transportation’s greenhouse gases. Transportation accounts for about one fifth of Finland’s emissions, with passenger cars accounting for close to half of that. Finland’s target is to cut transportation’s greenhouse gas emissions by fifty per cent by 2030 and to zero by 2045. Electricity is proving to be the best way to achieve carbon-neutrality in passenger transportation.

The number of electric vehicles on Finnish roadways has increased in recent years by almost 90 per cent annually; in 2020 there were already more than 40,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids in use. In Europe, EVs accounted for just under four per cent of all passenger cars in 2019, but the popularity of EVs varies significantly by country. For example, fewer than one per cent of all cars in Poland and Greece are EVs, while Norway already has more than 230,000 EVs in registered use – more per capita than any other country.

The charging network for EVs also has grown rapidly in recent years. In addition to public charging stations, Finland has seen rapid growth in household charging stations thanks to, e.g., subsidies given to housing co-operatives. It’s easy to travel with an EV: the car can be charged while it is parked, and even the fee for the charge can be paid with an app.

The electrification of motoring also reduces energy consumption. EVs require less energy than traditional passenger cars because, unlike internal combustion engines, they don’t generate heat loss. EVs are about 300–400 per cent more efficient than vehicles powered by fossil fuel.

The working group for fossil-free transport, led by Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, suggests that cutting transportation emissions to half by 2030 would require Finland alone to have as many as 700,000 EVs on the roads. So we – and all of Europe – have a lot of catching up to do in electrifying passenger car transportation.

Read more about future of transportation

Recycling EV batteries – but how?
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New battery technology is needed for electrifying motoring and for producing electricity with renewable energy. But the environmental impacts of batteries concern to many. EV batteries contain valuable metals, the availability of which is scarce and the demand growing. Modern battery technology, however, enables the recycling of over 80% of the lithium-ion battery materials.

The recycled raw material from batteries is utilised in the production of battery chemicals, thereby reducing the environmental load. In the lithium-ion battery handling process, plastics and metals, like aluminium and copper, are separated into their own fractions and recycled. After mechanical processing, valuable metals, like cobalt, nickel and manganese, are recovered from the battery cells’ black mass.

Hydrogen as a solution for land, sea and air transportation?
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EV batteries and their charging networks are already a credible alternative to traditional combustion engine vehicles in passenger transportation and even in local bus transportation. However, hydrogen has many competitive advantages in meeting the needs of long-distance, heavy-duty transportation – smaller mass in relation to stored energy, quick refilling, and long-range. Using hydrogen in heavy-duty transportation is not at all a far-fetched utopia – there are already 11 manufacturers offering hydrogen-powered buses.

Plenty of development is underway also in the Nordic countries, where there is an urgency to reduce transportation emissions. LUT University, among others, is currently researching possibilities to produce fuel by using electricity to break down water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, and then the hydrogen and carbon recovered from the air are combined into hydrocarbon, i.e. fuel. For example, methanol produced in this manner is well-suited as a fuel for ships.

Hydrogen can be used directly also in cars with fuel cells in which hydrogen reacts with oxygen, producing electric energy and water. The electric energy is fed to electric motors – so, in essence, hydrogen cars are electric cars in a way, but without a huge battery. Fuel-cell efficiency is also high: about 60% of the energy is used to move the vehicle, while the efficiency in traditional combustion engine cars is less than 30%. Norway and Sweden, among others, already have hydrogen buses in test use in transportation.

At the moment, the hydrogen-based so-called e-fuels are still too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. A Fortum-commissioned study by Copenhagen Economics estimates that industry and long-distance transportation will not transition to e-fuels on a broader scale until around 2030. However, e-fuels are expected to have an important role in heavy-duty transportation in the long term. In the future, cruiseliners will navigate from port to port using clean hydrogen energy, the emissions of which are just water.

Read more about hydrogen’s potential as a future fuel:

Fortum Energy Review: Decarbonisation of the Nordics

ForTheDoers Blog: Hydrogen economy will come - sooner or later

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