The Hydrogen Highway – Japan’s Bet Against Battery EVs

Posted by Stephen On Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Japanese automotive manufacturer, Toyota, is reinforcing the government’s push for a “hydrogen highway” with it’s latest next-generation hybrid — Mirai, which means “future” in Japanese. Recently, at the New York International Auto Show, this new entry into Japan’s race to become a “hydrogen society,” was declared the 2016 World Green Car. Twenty-three countries — represented by 73 top-level automotive journalists — had to choose between eight entries, including the Toyota Prius Hybrid. Factors that the jurors took into consideration when making their selection included:

1. Tailpipe emissions
2. Fuel consumption
3. Use of an advanced power plant technology aimed at increasing the automobile’s environmental responsibility.

(Unfortunately, these journalists seem to have missed the point that many of the — very few — hydrogen refueling stations require fossil fuels for its production, and take a lot of engineering to build. Hardly very green!)

Toyota Mirai World Green Car of the Year 2016

Energy of the Future

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes hydrogen will help Tokyo find an alternative energy source to nuclear power, and reduce reliance on imported oil. Japan is the sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Of course, an obvious option would be solar, wind and geothermal, which is why it is strange — except when you realize that the nuclear industry is a huge bureaucracy with deep connections to the government.

Group vice president and general manager, Bill Fay, of Toyota Division, points to three major factors about Mirai that will help lead the world in a more sustainable direction:

1. It has a per tank travel range of over 300 miles.
2. Unlike electric vehicles that can take several hours to recharge, refueling the Mirai can be done in under five minutes. Much like putting gasoline or diesel fuel in a car, a nozzle is inserted and a trigger squeezed to fill the tank.
3. Emissions consist solely of water vapor.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; it is also incredibly powerful so Toyota has taken important steps in the design of its hydrogen tanks, which are tucked under and away from the back seats. Safety assurance is achieved through polymer-lined tanks that are carbon-fiber wrapped and multi-patented. Their three-layer structure is built to absorb five times the crash energy of steel. Additionally, the car has a unique frame design that distributes crash forces around the passenger cabin, the hydrogen tanks and the fuel cell stacks.

However, in the event of a high-speed collision, you’ll be relieved to know that several measures are in place to prevent any leaking and subsequent combustion of the hydrogen tanks.

First: Sensors stop the flow of hydrogen.

Second: Any leaked hydrogen is quickly dispersed.

Third: Hydrogen escapes safely and rapidly into the air.

Hisashi Nakai, who works in Toyota’s strategy planning department, dismisses concerns about hydrogen posing any dangerous explosion risks despite the highly volatile and flammable properties of the gas. Nakai insists that rigorous testing has been performed on the tank and that it can withstand any shock. “(Fuel-cell vehicles) appear to be the ideal green cars,” he says.

Of course, a cynic would say that with new battery tech on the way using graphene, a derivative of carbon, that will be virtually inert under impact, the fact that Toyota is considering replacing one explosive fuel (gasoiline) with another one (hydrogen) is a bit of a mystery.

Mirai Fuel Cell Anatomy

– No internal combustion (the process of burning something).
– No carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — at least at the tail pipe.
– The electric motor is from an existing hybrid Lexus (Toyota’s luxury brand).
– A Power Control Unit (PCU) decides when to draw energy directly from the fuel cell stack or use stored energy from the battery.
– Hydrogen and oxygen are combined in an electrochemical reaction, which produces electricity.

The Cost of Conservation

– A comparable electric car costs 6.7 million JPY (roughly $55,000 U.S.)
– A Mirai fuel-cell car costs nearly double that amount.
– The central government throws in a subsidy of two million yen to the buyers to offset some of the purchase expense. Even though their contribution covers approximately one-fourth of the total cost of the car, the price is still very high.

Hype of the Hydrogen Highway

The Japan Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Demonstration Project is dedicated to building an infrastructure network of filling stations along roadsides, aka the “hydrogen highway.” This highly-publicized project is sure to be touted at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The Japanese government said that it will subsidize half the total building expense for the first 100 locations and will bear some of the operational costs. As of March 2016, Japan had fallen 20 percent short of its target of 100 operational hydrogen stations due to the high cost of constructing them: about 400 million yen (over $3.2 million U.S.) each. Japan is not alone; slow construction of hydrogen refueling stations around the world is cramping efforts by automakers to convince the public that hydrogen is a viable option.

Japan’s Government Projections and Predictions

– There will be 4,200 hydrogen cars on the roads of Japan.

Deadline: 2018

– Toyota, specifically, plans to boost Mirai sales to 12,000 units in Japan.

Deadline: 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

– Prime Minister Abe envisions an annual hydrogen market worth one trillion yen ($8.3 billion U.S.), which would also supply hydrogen-producing technology to 5.3 million residences

Deadline: 2030


It is hard not to rain on this parade, but … The expense of new fueling stations. The decidedly non-green way most hydrogen is being created. The major strides taking place in battery tech. The cost reductions in batteries when Tesla’s Gigafactory comes on line. All these and more are going to make the case for hydrogen difficult (or in this writer’s view impossible) to make over the coming years.

It would not be the first time Japan has embraced a technological evolutionary dead end — remember Betamax, or MD players ? — and with the full weight of bureaucratic inertia behind it, I would not be surprised if hydrogen fuel cell cars were the same.

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