Toyota Embraces Hydrogen

Toyota is the world’s most successful car company. The Prius is the most popular gas-electric hybrid ever, with 3 million sold in 80 countries worldwide. Toyota can be said to have pioneered the first vehicle that has challenged the traditional internal combustion engine.
So why is the Japanese giant now moving away from hybrids and placing its bets on the hydrogen fuel cell?
It’s a tough question. Not many analysts can see the sense of it. Elon Musk dismisses the whole idea as “fool cells” and says it can’t succeed. Yet, Toyota maintains that there are inherent advantages in the technology that will eventually emerge. Most of all, the decision by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai to go with hydrogen instead of electric vehicles has set off a fierce debate on which technology — if either — represents the better route to replacing the internal combustion engine.
It is not as if this is a snap decision for Toyota. In 1992, the company set up two task forces — one to investigate the gas-electric hybrid and one to pursue the hydrogen vehicle. In 1997 the Japanese giant introduced the Prius, which has gone on to become one of the most successful models of all time. But work never stopped on the fuel cell project. Now, as company officials reportedly believe hybrid technology may have reached the point of diminishing returns, they feel it is time to move on to something new. “Of all the advanced power train systems we have in our portfolio,” Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter told Green Car Reports, “we see hydrogen fuel cells as being the no-compromise, primary-option vehicle for the next 100 years.”
All this is happening, of course, at the moment when Tesla seems to be proving that electric vehicles can go head-to-head with gas-powered cars. So the question is, what does Toyota see in hydrogen that can’t be achieved by following up with electrics?
Range is one answer. Toyota is still convinced that electric vehicles will never get beyond the 150-200-mile range that most EVs now achieve — although Tesla is already pushing toward 300. The new Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) that will go on sale in California next summer will have a range of 300 miles, with hopes of future improvement.
Even more important than range is refueling time. A fuel-cell vehicle can fill up at a hydrogen pump in ten minutes — still significantly longer than gasoline — but an EV takes from four to six hours. Even the new “superchargers” that Musk is installing around the country take 20 minutes to give a half-charge. But Musk is also working on a battery-pack replacement that would be faster than a gasoline fill-up.
Of course all this is predicated on having “filling stations” available, and on that score, hydrogen is even further behind. There are only 60 such facilities in the entire country. Tesla just announced its 100th supercharging station in April and that’s just a small part of the action. Most EV owners recharge at home and the electric grid is everywhere. Providing hydrogen around the country would require a whole new infrastructure.
Joseph Romm, who once promoted hydrogen cars as Assistant Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton and later wrote the book, “The Hype About Hydrogen,” remains one of the fiercest critics of the technology. “Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and escapes almost any container,” he wrote in his blog, ThinkProgress. “It makes metals brittle. It is almost impossible to transport. These are physical barriers that will be very difficult to overcome.”
Another surprising aspect of hydrogen is that it is not particularly cheap. Unlike EVs, ethanol or methanol made from natural gas, hydrogen does not offer consumers any financial incentive. At the J.P. Morgan Auto Conference in New York last week, Senior Vice President Carter admitted that a full tank of hydrogen needed to carry the driver 300 miles will cost $50, slightly higher than ordinary gasoline. By contrast, the owner of a Prius only pays $21 for the same trip, and the owner of a Tesla Model S would pay $9.60 at off-peak rates. It’s hard to see how there is going to be any appeal to consumers.
Now it must be admitted that much of the fierce debate taking place on the Internet concerning fuel cells vs. EVs revolves around reducing carbon emissions rather than freeing ourselves from foreign oil. EV advocates imagine a grid running on wind and solar energy while H2 partisans envision windmills and solar collectors turning out prodigious amounts of hydrogen. Other environmental critics have argued that without a larger component of non-fossil-fuel sources generating the electricity, converting to electric vehicles will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, although some people disagree with all this.
It sometimes seems as if we are trying to accomplish too many things at once. Putting more FCVs and EVs on the road would definitely move us toward energy independence. The source of the hydrogen or electricity can be sorted out later, and the same goes for methanol and ethanol as a liquid substitute for gasoline. These fuels might originally come from natural gas, but renewable sources such as landfill gas and manure piles could be substituted later.
The important thing is to keep moving forward on all fronts. No one knows when some vast new battery improvement or an entirely different method of extracting hydrogen may prove to be a game-changer. Toyota is doing this by pursuing the fuel cell vehicle — even though for the present the odds seem slightly stacked against it.

“Toyota FCV-R Concept WAS 2012 0629″ by Mariordo – Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.