Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen

November 16, 2017 by Yuri Kageyama
Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, workers of Toyota Motor Corp. set hydrogen-stored tanks, in yellow, to be placed into a Mirai fuel cell vehicle at the automaker's Motomachi plant, in Toyota, western Japan. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. The Associated Press got a tour of Toyota's Motomachi plant that assembles the Mirai fuel cell vehicle. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

At a car factory in this city named after Toyota, the usual robots with their swinging arms are missing. Instead, workers intently fit parts into place by hand with craftsmanship-like care.

The big moment on the assembly line comes when two bulbous yellow tanks of are rolled over and delicately fitted into each car's underside.

While much of the world is going gung-ho for to help get rid of auto emissions and end reliance on fossil fuels, Japan's top automaker Toyota Motor Corp. is banking on hydrogen.

Toyota sells about 10 million vehicles a year around the world. It has sold only about 4,000 Mirai fuel cell vehicles since late 2014, roughly half of them outside Japan.

The Mirai, which means "future," is not cheap at $57,500, but Toyota loses money on each one. Still, the company's goal is to sell 30,000 fuel-cell vehicles a year by about 2020.

Hydrogen fuel don't suffer the EVs' main drawback of limited range. The Tesla Model S can go about 300 miles (480 kilometers) on a single charge, although that varies depending on driving conditions, and that's quite a distance for an EV.

Other models run out of juice quicker, at about half that, because the longer the range, generally the heavier the batteries. And electric vehicles usually take hours to charge.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, workers of Toyota Motor Corp. assemble a Mirai fuel cell vehicle at the automaker's Motomachi plant in Toyota, western Japan. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. The Associated Press got a tour of Toyota's Motomachi plant that assembles the Mirai fuel cell vehicle. Toyota believes the drawbacks of batteries make electric vehicles suited more for short urban commutes, with hydrogen being the more practical energy choice of the future, in the long run. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

The Mirai can run for 312 miles (502 kilometers) per fueling, under U.S. EPA conditions, and fuels as quickly as a regular car.

Toyota's chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada, believes hydrogen is an ideal, stable fuel for a future low-carbon society.

"In this light, hydrogen holds tremendous potential," Uchiyamada, known as "the father of the Prius," the world's top-selling hybrid car, said during a tour of the factory.

"Hydrogen doesn't exist in the natural world on its own, but you can create hydrogen from various materials," he said.

The Prius turned out to be a good bet for Toyota. The Mirai could be the same. But not everyone shares Uchiyamada's enthusiasm for hydrogen.

A fuel cell mixes hydrogen with the oxygen in the air to generate electricity that can power a motor.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Nov. 14, 2017, photo, a worker and a driver stand next to a Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle while it is filled hydrogen full into at a hydrogen fueling station in Tokyo. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

Producing the highly flammable gas and getting it into the vehicles requires energy. Ultimately, the idea is to convert energy from renewables like wind and solar power into hydrogen, or even make hydrogen from sewage waste.

Unlike a gas-powered internal combustion engine, the only byproducts from a fuel cell are electricity, heat and water. There are no emissions of pollutants that can cause global warming. Yet the energy unleashed is powerful: Hydrogen is the fuel that sends NASA rockets into space.

So fuel cells could be used to power cars, trains, buses, trucks and forklifts, and to provide electricity and heat for homes.

Detroit-based General Motors Co., Mercedes-Benz of Germany, Japan's Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai of South Korea have also developed fuel cell vehicles that are on the roads in extremely limited numbers.

The global stock of electric vehicles will soon surpass 2 million, according to the International Energy Agency. It's projected to climb to between 9 million-20 million by 2020. Fuel cell vehicles are scarcely a presence.

The Hydrogen Council, made up of 28 companies that are promoting hydrogen fuel, said in a report this week that it expects hydrogen to power about 10 to 15 million cars and 500,000 trucks by 2030. It also forecasts it will be widely used for industries, heating and power and power storage.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, workers of a Toyota Motor Corp. assemble a Mirai fuel cell vehicle at the automaker's Motomachi plant in Toyota, western Japan. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

The group met this week in Bonn, on the sidelines of the COP23 U.N. meeting on the environment.

Toyota and other manufacturers pursuing face some significant hurdles. Japan has an ample 28,000 EV charging stations but only 92 hydrogen fueling stations, and they are costly to build.

Hydrogen is viewed as potentially hazardous: the 1937 Hindenberg disaster, when 36 people died when the hydrogen-fueled airship caught fire and crashed, ended an earlier era of hydrogen-powered passenger travel.

Hydrogen explosions during the 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima are a more recent example of such hazards. But proponents of the fuel say hydrogen is no more dangerous than gas or electricity if handled properly.

A fill-up with hydrogen takes about as long as at a gas pump, while EV charging takes about 30 minutes using special equipment for quick charging. Regular charging can take hours.

"I'm not claiming that hydrogen will replace any form of energy, but it will find its place in the world energy mix," Benoit Potier, chief executive of French industrial gas company Air Liquide, and a chair of the Hydrogen Council, said in a telephone interview.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, workers of Toyota Motor Corp. assemble a Mirai fuel cell vehicle at the automaker's Motomachi plant in Toyota, western Japan. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

Air Liquide has been working on producing, storing and distributing hydrogen fuel for more than four decades. Potier says he expects costs for making the gas will fall as its use becomes more widespread.

In one step toward widening use of hydrogen, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, an aerospace, motorcycle and ship manufacturer, is developing a technology to make hydrogen in Australia using "brown coal," peat or low-grade coal for shipment to Japan in tankers it plans to make.

Not all Japanese automakers are sold on the idea. Manabu Satou, general manager of technology at Toyota's rival Nissan Motor Co., finds it an "utter mystery" why anyone would be so set on fuel cells when China, the world's biggest car market, is going for conventional EVs.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, workers of Toyota Motor Corp. set hydrogen-stored tanks, in yellow, to be placed into a Mirai fuel cell vehicle at the automaker's Motomachi plant in Toyota, western Japan. Toyota is banking on a futuristic "electrification" auto technology called hydrogen fuel cells for its zero-emissions option. The Associated Press got a tour of Toyota's Motomachi plant that assembles the Mirai fuel cell vehicle. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)
"If we are talking about a form of great energy like hydrogen, then why not just go all the way to a nuclear car?" said Satou, whose company leads in EV sales with its popular Leaf compact.

Ryuichi Kino, who has written about electric vehicles and energy, views as an excessively expensive, futuristic technology.

"If it focuses too much on fuel cells, Japan is going to end up super-ultra-Galapagos," he said, alluding to the secluded Pacific islands that are home to unique species that don't exist elsewhere.

Amid global electric-car buzz, Toyota bullish on hydrogen
In this Oct. 30, 2017, photo, Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada talks to reporters at the automaker's Motomachi plant where the Mirai fuel cell vehicle is being assembled, in Toyota, western Japan. "Hydrogen doesn't exist in the natural world on its own, but you can create hydrogen from various materials," said Uchiyamada, known as "the father of the Prius," the world's top-selling hybrid car. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

For most automakers, cells are an area just for research, while EVs already are commercialized, Kino said.

But he allows that a technological breakthrough could bring a hydrogen-based sea change in the global race toward automotive "electrification."

"Winners could become losers, and losers could become winners. It's still anyone's game," Kino said.

Explore further: Toyota, Nissan, others get behind fuel cell push in Japan

Related Stories

Toyota recalls all fuel-cell Mirai vehicles

February 15, 2017

Toyota said Wednesday it is recalling all the Mirai fuel-cell vehicles it has sold globally due to a software glitch that can shut off its hydrogen-powered system.

Recommended for you

Asteroids, hydrogen make great recipe for life on Mars

March 26, 2019

A new study reveals asteroid impacts on ancient Mars could have produced key ingredients for life if the Martian atmosphere was rich in hydrogen. An early hydrogen-rich atmosphere on Mars could also explain how the planet ...

Cool Earth theory sheds more light on diamonds

March 26, 2019

A QUT geologist has published a new theory on the thermal evolution of Earth billions of years ago that explains why diamonds have formed as precious gemstones rather than just lumps of common graphite.

New cellulose-based material represents three sensors in one

March 26, 2019

Cellulose soaked in a carefully designed polymer mixture acts as a sensor to measure pressure, temperature and humidity at the same time. The measurements are completely independent of each other. The ability to measure pressure, ...

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation

March 26, 2019

People in many parts of the world feed birds in their backyards, often due to a desire to help wildlife or to connect with nature. In the United States alone, over 57 million households in the feed backyard birds, spending ...

12 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Emptycell
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
What is the efficiency of the hydrogen car?
daqddyo
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Has anyone tried a hydrogen fueled internal combustion engine in a car? Surely it would be a non polluter as well and maybe much lighter.
MarsBars
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2017
... the 1937 Hindenberg disaster, when 36 people died when the hydrogen-fueled airship caught fire and crashed, ended an earlier era of hydrogen-powered passenger travel.

The Hindenberg was NOT powered by hydrogen! Its powerplants were four Daimler-Benz diesel engines. Hydrogen was used in its gas envelope, to provide lift.
tekram
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
About 4 miles to a dollar or 10 miles to an equivalent gallon of gasoline at current gasoline prices.

'It remains entirely unclear if hydrogen fuel, even delivered in volume across a national network of fueling stations, will be price-competitive with gasoline on a per-mile-driven basis.

First Element Fuel in the U.S., for example, charged $20 for enough hydrogen to drive 60 to 75 miles when we refueled a Honda Clarity Fuel Cell two weeks ago.'

https://www.green...laid-out
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Has anyone tried a hydrogen fueled internal combustion engine in a car? Surely it would be a non polluter as well and maybe much lighter.


Yes. BMW had a prototype where the entire back seat and rear compartment was replaced with a liquid hydrogen tank. It still didn't go very far.

But proponents of the fuel say hydrogen is no more dangerous than gas or electricity if handled properly.


The caveat is "handled properly". Dioxygen difluoride is just as safe - if handled properly. If not, well, the stuff makes sand burn. There's not much you can do except run like hell.

antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
I think Toyota might be aiming for a bigger picture. Cars are only the beginning of the energy revolution. Ships and planes will follow (and I don't see either working with batteries. There exists already a prototype that has all the qualifications to be ready for market in the 10-40 seater range for planes with the HY4 ).
For flight MJ/kg is a bigger figure of merit than MJ/liter..which makes this graphic rather interesting:
https://en.wikipe...sity.svg

A company that can sport a long history of making hydrogen propulsion systems will have an excellent position in these emerging markets.
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
The white elephant in the room is that fuel cell cars don't need to run on hydrogen. They can be made to burn almost any fuel.

If it's a fossil fuel, they reduce CO2 emissions by being more efficient.
If it's a renewable fuel, they're simply a better alternative to the battery EVs because they're lighter and don't suffer the refueling problem.
It's also safer because a fuel cell separates the fuel and the oxidizer, whereas in a battery the energy is ready to release as it is.

Ultimately, building a big battery is always going to involve hundreds of kilos of material, whereas a fuel cell stack is small and involves only minute quantities of active materials, so it doesn't suffer from the same production capacity issues, so it's going to become very cheap in large volumes.
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Ships and planes will follow


Or will they?

5.25% efficiency achieved in a solar-to-fuel process using nothing but water and CO2.

https://phys.org/...h2o.html

H2O and CO2 can supply the feedstock for all the liquid fuels currently used for transportation, which are just various molecular recombinations of hydrogen and carbon. Industrial-scale jet fuel production from solar thermochemical splitting would be disruptive for the fossil fuel industry. Oil and natural gas would no longer be needed as the feedstock for transportation fuel production.


These synthetic hydrocarbons can be used to power a fuel cell. You don't need to change any of the infrastructure either.
Colbourne
not rated yet Nov 17, 2017
Natural gas makes much more sense as people can refuel at home, use in an ic car as a dual fuel with petrol, and can also be used in fuel cells.

It will output a little C02 , but much less than a petrol car. Unless hydrogen is produced entirely by renewable power natural gas is the cleaner fuel.
lifeinthetrees
1 / 5 (1) Nov 17, 2017
Tunnel fires and terrorism will be incredible with hydrogen. it's good for demographic numbers. if a hydro car catches inside a tunnel, the heatwave will go out both ends of then tunnel at 100 miles an hour. hydrogen flies upwards so fast, it's less hazardous than some other gases, unless it pools on your garage ceiling and you flip the switch. If you can make a hydro ebike i' m all for it too.
Eikka
not rated yet Nov 17, 2017
hydrogen flies upwards so fast, it's less hazardous than some other gases


That's not entirely true. Hydrogen gas diffuses readily in air, faster than any other gas - it mixes rapidly - and in a mixture it loses its buyoancy.

If you have a massive release of hydrogen, it all goes up in a big glob, but if you have a slow leak it will fill up the place and linger around, until it finds an ignition source. Hydrogen gas also has the property of having the widest explosive range of all flammable gasses, so it tends to blow up rather than flame up - it's very hard to get it burning peacefully in open air.

That's also the reason why you can't easily run a regular car on hydrogen, because at any mixture between about 5 - 75% in air, it tends to backfire through the intake valve and blow the intake manifold and air filter out.
Eikka
not rated yet Dec 07, 2017
Eikka. That's why direct injection of liquid hydrogen is the way to go. Intake valves well closed, no fuel in the manifolds.


Yes, but now you have simply introduced the issue named "liquid hydrogen" - which only stays a liquid below -252 degrees and if allowed to heat up, will produce a pressure no container can hold. That means cars fueled with liquid hydrogen have to continuously vent hydrogen into the atmosphere to keep their fuel tanks from bursting, and raw hydrogen is a greenhouse gas.

And there's a huge issue with liquid hydrogen, should it spill, because it's cold enough to condense oxygen out of the air and form a mixture ready for detonation, turning it into a high explosive with a hair trigger.

It's generally very very nasty stuff, but "safe if handled properly".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.