Explained: Why Extreme E is switching to hydrogen

Alejandro Agag has made no secret of the fact that being the first to run a hydrogen-only championship has been a key factor in the decision to turn Extreme E away from more conventional battery-powered vehicles from next season, but the series CEO says there are wider, non-sporting reasons that make it a smart move.

After four seasons of Extreme E, Extreme H will arrive next year. For all intents and purposes, it’s the exact same championship, just with different cars. But while motorsport’s relevance is often largely confined to the automotive sector, Extreme H will cast a wider net.

“We are going to need every source of energy we can get our hands on,” Agag says. “We are going to need solar, we are going to need wind massively, we are going to need electric cars, we’re going to need hydrogen. We’re going to need to optimize fossil fuels for the future.


“We’re going to need everything we can get our hands on, because the needs of energy are going to grow exponentially.

“There’s never been more need to look into new ways of using alternative energies than now,” he continues. “There’s never been more need to also keep raising awareness than now, because that’s losing a little bit of momentum, and that’s why I think it’s the perfect timing to launch a new championship like this, which is a championship not only focused on mobility — we’re going to focus on cars and the use of hydrogen for cars; it’s a championship that is going to be focused on hydrogen in general.”

Agag has spoken before about Extreme H’s ambition to attract energy companies and tech companies, even if it’s at the expense of automakers — Volkswagen (via its Cupra brand) and General Motors (GMC Hummer EV) have already stepped out ahead of the hydrogen move. But following Thursday’s unveiling of the Pioneer 25 racing car and the fact that the series is now very much a real world thing as opposed to mere talk, manufacturers are once again taking note, especially as consumer doubts around conventional EVs remain.

“We had a very, very productive meeting a few weeks ago where a very large number of car manufacturers showed up with great interest for the championship,” he says. “I was surprised myself.

“We can see in the market, caused also by the competition of Chinese electric car makers, a bit of a moment of self doubt, if you like, of the EV wave. I think it’s momentary. I think EVs are unbeatable, especially for cities, but that makes a lot of car manufacturers rethink their hydrogen strategy, and I think that’s also a very good timing for this championship to show up.”

The Extreme H car, despite its hydrogen element, remains an EV. But Agag still isn’t ruling out the possibility of a combustion aspect in future, although he admits “combustion of hydrogen is not there yet.”

“There are some prototypes,” he says. “I know that probably it would be too early to create a championship with formula cars with combustion with hydrogen. So I think it’s perfect. The platform is the perfect one: short races, many races during the day.

Extreme E’s current race format lends itself neatly to hydrogen.

“The tanks can store one kilo of hydrogen, up to two kilos, depending on the pressure, which is perfect for the distance that we race on.

“We’re always open to combustion, too. And there are two ways to use the combustion: you could have a combustion engine so the car basically operates on from the combustion engine, or you could have a combustion engine that charges a battery, and then that battery powers an electric motor, so it’s a hybrid kind of combustion and EV vehicle looks like some of the partners we’re working with are leading to that option first to produce a race car that is a combustion engine that helps charge the battery, or that charges the battery and then it’s an EV.

“The other option is just a pure combustion engine. Combustion has some challenges. The hydrogen breaks the injectors, the cylinders sometimes crack, it’s corrosive, there’s leaks, so all these things still have to still to be ironed out, but definitely combustion, it’s a very interesting option.”

On the subject of formula cars, Extreme H has already formed a working group with Formula 1 and the FIA to explore hydrogen technology, but it’s unlikely to feature directly in open-wheel racing any time soon.

“You need a rather big vehicle to store the hydrogen, unless you liquefy it, which is expensive and uses a lot of energy, or if you store it at really, really high pressures, which has some safety aspects to it,” he says. “So a big car with short races is a perfect format for hydrogen. Extreme E is big cars and short races, so it was the perfect format to switch it to hydrogen.”

The production of hydrogen, though, remains energy-intensive, and the infrastructure for consumer products doesn’t exist in the same way it does for traditional combustion vehicles or even the current breed of EVs. Agag says that as well as showcasing how it works in vehicles, showing that the hydrogen can be produced in a sustainable way is also “definitely one of the priorities” for the series.

“People speak a lot about hydrogen, but the hydrogen, it’s all identical: green, blue, black, gray, whatever. It just comes from a different manufacturing process, or a different source, if you like. And in some cases, that is a very, very, very polluting process. So you would be getting a fuel that comes from a very, very polluting activity.

“Of course, the hydrogen that we want to use, and we will use, is green hydrogen, so produced with solar or wind. I am also a big fan of nuclear, so I wouldn’t have any objection to use pink hydrogen, also for the championship.

“It’s key for the whole story and to make the picture credible, in order to make all the research, all the developments, all the all the kinds of advances that we want.

“Of course, to be really credible to what we’re telling it has to be produced in a sustainable way. If it was easy, there would be no need for a championship, let’s put it that way. That’s why we do it. We are aware, and I’m very aware that there are many challenges around hydrogen as there are many challenges around batteries, because there is no perfect solution, but the best solution we can get, I think, will be a combination of all of them.”

Extreme E in its current form already uses a hydrogen fuel cell to power the paddock, with the hydrogen being produced with the help of solar power, but don’t expect that — or the cars’ fuel cells to be replaced by nuclear reactors any time soon, even if this isn’t the first time Agag has brought up the word unprompted.

“I don’t think you can race nuclear cars, because I don’t think you can put a nuclear reactor inside the car,” he says with a smile. “What you can do is produce hydrogen from power coming from a nuclear power station. So you can produce, you can put your electrolyzers near a nuclear power station. But you can link, or you can plug your electrolyzers to a nuclear power station, and you get the electricity from that nuclear power station. You produce hydrogen.

Agag (center) is already part of a working group with the FIA and F1 to explore the use of hydrogen in formula cars, but admits that the technology to make it practical remains a work in progress.

“That hydrogen effectively will be zero emissions, but the cars, yeah. I mean, sounds really cool, but I think the smallest thing they put a nuclear reactor in is a big submarine.”

Extreme H may well be the world’s first hydrogen-only series, but were already seeing the technology deployed at Le Mans, and the FIA and ACO recently opened the door for a hydrogen class in the World Endurance Championship, but for those looking to get involved in hydrogen-powered motorsport, Agag feels that his series is the place to be.

“The first reason why you should come to us is because it’s up and running and it works,” he stresses. “Everything else is not up and running and it doesn’t work. For example, Le Mans — and we are talking with car manufacturers — a Le Mans car with hydrogen would probably have to pit very frequently, because of the volume of the hydrogen, and still there is quite a bit of work to do on that.

“We have cars that are going to work next week. The car’s up and running, has already done a lot of testing, and we will open the we have a roadmap for manufacturers to bring their technology into an existing operating car with a very simple kind of way to to integrate their technology in it.

“So ours is more of a plug-and-play product. I think we are about three to five years ahead of time from the rest. I think the rest of the hydrogen competitions will be there in three, four or five years. We’re going to start in, hopefully in April next year.”

Speaking of the plan to open up development for manufacturers, Extreme H technical director Mark Grain says the rules will center mainly around the hydrogen fuel cell, which at present is a control part supplied by Symbio.

“We’ve got a framework that exists predominantly that revolves around the hydrogen fuel cell technology, and how the balance energy that’s delivered to the car will shift,” he says. “We’ve got 75 kilowatts in the fuel cell, and 325 in the battery pack, and we want to, over time, shift that and allow that to balance out.”

With Extreme E moving towards a solely hydrogen future, is the same about to happen in the wider automotive sphere? Agag doesn’t think so, insisting that typical EVs and even fossil fuels will always have their place, but Extreme H can play a role in aiding the rapid development of hydrogen technology.

“Of course, EVs are going to be a key part of the solution of decarbonizing mobility, but we will need all the technologies we have in the portfolio,” he says. “We will definitely need, EVs, but we will also need hydrogen, and we will also probably continue needing fossil fuels for a while.

“So definitely, hydrogen will play a role, and I think a championship like ours that is full, hydrogen can be the platform where all these developments can be tested, new things can be tried, not only inside the car, but outside the car.”

Story originally appeared on Racer