Driving a revolution
betting big on hydrogen fuel cells
Japan is at the forefront of an automotive energy revolution, betting big on hydrogen fuel cells as it looks to find more environmentally friendly and sustainable energy sources for its vehicles and homes.
Earlier this month, Toyota said it wanted to boost sales of its hydrogen-powered cars by 10 times over the next four years as it gets behind the government’s push to create a “hydrogen society” in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The world’s biggest carmaker is targeting global sales of 30,000 a year and also aims to have a new model of the Mirai, its hydrogen-fuel cell car, on the road by that date.
“The 2020 Olympics could be the venue to showcase (the new Mirai) to the world,” said Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s head of advanced research and development.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has called hydrogen the power of the future. He launched a strategic road map in June 2014, setting out targets for its widespread adoption in vehicles, houses and industry.
“I believe we can say that Japan has become a front-runner in the hydrogen-energy revolution,” he said at the opening of a fuel-cell station in Tokyo.
The resource-poor nation is seeking to fill an energy gap left by the closure of its 54 nuclear reactors after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Government targets call for about 40,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on Japan’s roads by 2020, up from just 400 currently. The goal is to increase that to 200,000 vehicles by 2025 and at least 800,000 by 2030.
It also wants to see about 1.4m households using fuel cell units to power their homes by 2020, rising to 5.3m households, or about one in ten, by 2030.
According to the 2016 Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Annual Review, Japan already tops the rankings when it comes to product availability and adoption in hydrogen fuel cell power.
The main advantage of hydrogen as a fuel is its only emissions are water vapour, making it far less polluting than fossil fuels. It is also in abundant supply and can be produced from a wide range of primary energy sources including renewables such as wind and solar, as well as coal and gas.
To power the car, hydrogen stored in high-pressure tanks is pumped through to a fuel cell stack, where it combines with oxygen coming from inlets at the front of the car. The subsequent reaction creates an electric charge, whose voltage is increased through a boost converter. The electric motor then runs the vehicle.
Toyota was the first to introduce a hydrogen-fuelled car in December 2014, with the launch of the Mirai. Honda followed with its Clarity model this year and Nissan has its own hydrogen car under development.
The Mirai can travel almost 700km before it needs a refill, further than it typical of an electric battery-powered vehicle. That’s a similar distance to conventional cars and some 560km more than the Leaf, Nissan’s electric vehicle which is one of the best performing in terms of mileage. Honda’s Clarity, meanwhile, can travel about 590km.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars also take just three minutes to refill, compared with some electric batteries that can take up to eight hours to fully charge. But while electric cars can be recharged at home or at powerpoints across a city, hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles must be filled at designated stations much like existing petrol cars.
At present, there are only eight stations in Tokyo, though the government wants to double the number of hydrogen fuel stations to 160 by 2020, rising to 320 by 2025.
“The problem for ordinary cars is you need to cover the whole country with a network of filling stations, which needs huge investment,” says Gerhard Fasol, founder of Tokyo-based Eurotechnology Japan. “So a hydrogen economy is a big business issue.”
Those stations are also about five times more expensive to build than a conventional petrol station at about $4.3m each. Given the limited number of cars on the roads, that does not make it commercially viable for operators yet.
Honda, Nissan and Toyota have said they will work to bring down the cost of operating stations, agreeing to pay one-third of the expenses up to a maximum of 11 million yen annually, likely through 2020.
The Tokyo Municipal Government has also announced major plans to boost hydrogen power ahead of the Olympics. The administration has a 40 billion yen fund to improve infrastructure and is aiming for 35 stations in the metropolitan area by 2020. This will make it possible to reach a station within 15 minutes from most places in the metropolis.
As the world looks for alternative solutions to using fossil fuels to power our vehicles and homes, hydrogen fuel cells could be one solution. Japan hopes that its moves to power this new technology will put it – and its carmakers – in a leading position to drive that change.