While hybrids and EVs are now a common sight on our roads, hydrogen-powered vehicles still seem like the stuff of science fiction. It may take time for hydrogen to reach the mainstream, says Toyota’s Jon Hunt, but the prospect of zero-emission transport will be well worth the wait
The importance of providing energy security and decarbonising society, while improving air quality and reducing environmental impact, present huge challenges, particularly for the energy and transport sectors – producers of the highest CO2 emissions.
In the UK a particular focus is provided by the government targeting an 80% reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.
There are social, political and economic consequences to consider, and both government and commercial operators have a responsibility and opportunity to shape how these challenges can be addressed.
No single solution will meet all needs and there are different national and international considerations and constraints, but the fundamental relationships between these issues and objectives are consistent across the globe.
One solution is the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell technology for the development of zero emission vehicles, and as sources of heat and power.
Hydrogen has the highest specific energy density of any non-nuclear power source and it is the most abundant element in the universe. It is inexhaustible, non-toxic, and can be created using many sources, including surplus grid power, bio plants and emission-free intermittent renewables. It can be stored indefinitely and shipped relatively easily.
Hydrogen can be used in a wide range of applications: stationary, such as in buildings and for industrial uses; or mobile, as already seen in passenger vehicles, fork-lifts, ships, locomotives and, at a test stage, for aircraft.
Answering the critics
Arguments that hydrogen is unsafe, uneconomic and difficult to produce cleanly ignore the benefits and alternative methods of production that are available.
Millions of tonnes of hydrogen are produced and used without incident every year and we can now handle it arguably more safely than fossil fuel. It also addresses the safety issues of an alternative energy store: lithium ion battery production, use and recycling.
The production, compression and dispensing of hydrogen consume energy, but do so with surplus renewables and grid energy, effectively using waste energy. As hydrogen can be stored and shipped, it is also efficient and cost effective to distribute.
Hydrogen can be produced industrially where it has often been a by-product. This process can create emissions, but technologies and systems are now available that can ensure production is emission-free.
This is a significant shift in the energy sector and it will take time to accomplish, but with growing economic, political and environmental pressure, there is an expectation that by mid to late 2020s we will see hydrogen power reaching the mainstream
Most new vehicle hydrogen refuelling stations, including those in the UK, create hydrogen on-site with electrolysis, using 100% renewable surplus energy. Nothing has to be delivered to the site and there are no emissions from either the production process, or the fuel’s consumption.
These stations are containerised and only require water and power to operate. Power is supplied on green tariffs, or at some stations is sourced directly from solar or wind on site.
Toyota holds the view that when it comes to motoring, there is currently no single solution to reducing emissions or meeting customer needs. It is about delivering the ‘right vehicle, at the right place, and at the right time’. Its position has been to invest in all areas in order to meet immediate, medium and long-term needs in different markets and environments.
In the shorter term, petrol electric hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles look likely to dominate, as they are simpler and less expensive to produce. By comparison, pure battery electric vehicles are a more expensive niche solution. Fuel cells require significant investment and the use of advanced technology, but offer the greatest future potential.
The fuel of the future
The Toyota Mirai, the world’s first full production dedicated hydrogen fuel cell saloon, can be driven for around 300 miles from a full tank of 5kg of hydrogen, an amount of fuel that can be produced from 50 litres of water. In the course of driving that distance, the car’s only emission will be 50 litres of water. Nothing is consumed; the whole process is simply a transfer of energy.
Toyota believes that more rapid and long-term use of hydrogen is likely due to its universal availability, the wide range of applications it can be used for and its adoption by energy suppliers as a fully renewable energy vector, enabling cheaper and more efficient power supply including vehicle fuelling.
It can be produced relatively easily from many different sources without impacting the grid and because it can be made from surplus renewables, it can be produced cost effectively.
The importance of hydrogen in the future is underlined by the recent formation of the Hydrogen Council, a global group bringing together senior executives from leading fuel, energy, manufacturing and mining businesses, including Air Liquide, Alstom, Anglo American, BMW, Daimler, Engie, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Linde, Shell, Total and Toyota.
The Hydrogen Council’s intention is to co-ordinate and accelerate hydrogen investment and deployment in all sectors. The current commitment is for more than $5bn to be spent in the next five years.
Across the world about 3,000 Mirai have been delivered since the model’s introduction in Japan in December 2014: around 1,500 in Japan, 1,400 in the U.S. and the balance in selected European countries, including 30 for customers in the UK.
The UK private hire car business greentomatocars was the first in Europe to take delivery of Mirai and one of its vehicles has covered more than 30,000 miles in 14 months with no reported problems. That distance is more than once around the world, with the only emission being about 5,000 litres of water.
In considering the significance Mirai might have, it is worth reflecting on the impact Toyota’s hybrid technology has had. With more than 10 million petrol electric hybrid vehicles sold worldwide since the introduction of the original Prius in 1997 and many other leading vehicle manufacturers adopting the technology, Toyota’s leadership is clear.
Although there are issues of customer acceptance, the cost of first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the development of an effective hydrogen fuel infrastructure, there are clear plans for expansion.
This is a significant shift in the energy sector and it will take time to accomplish, but with growing economic, political and environmental pressure, there is an expectation that by mid to late 2020s we will see hydrogen power reaching the mainstream.
Toyota has announced its intention to increase annual production to 30,000 units by the early 2020s, as well as introducing fuel cell fork lift trucks and buses, the first of which have been delivered this year in Japan.