Why does Toyota propose hydrogen fuel cell technology as a power solution for zero-emissions vehicles? And are hydrogen-powered cars viable? We look at reasons why Toyota is confident they are, and why hydrogen is the ideal source of clean energy.
Putting energy needs into context
Energy and transport sectors are being presented with huge challenges in decarbonising society and providing energy security, while simultaneously improving air quality and minimising environmental impact. The UK government has delivered a particular focus in this respect, targeting an 80% reduction in all greenhouse gases by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.
With numerous social, political and economic issues to consider, it is not possible for a single solution to meet all needs. However, the fundamental relationships between these issues and objectives are consistent across the globe.
Are hydrogen-powered cars viable – why hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and has the highest specific energy density of any non-nuclear power source. It is inexhaustible and non-toxic; it can be created using many sources, stored indefinitely and can be shipped relatively easily.
Millions of tonnes of hydrogen are produced and used without incident every year and we can now handle it more safely than fossil fuel. It is already being used as a power source in buildings, and in mobile applications such as electric cars, fork-lifts, ships and trains. Testing is even underway to produce hydrogen-fuelled aircraft.
Are hydrogen-powered cars viable – fuel production
Producing, compressing and dispensing hydrogen does consume some energy, but this can be combatted by using surplus renewable energy that might otherwise be wasted. Hydrogen is also a by-product of certain industries, some of which can create emissions, yet technologies and systems are now available to ensure that its production is free of emissions. Once produced, hydrogen is also efficient and cost-effective to distribute.
Interestingly, most new vehicle hydrogen refuelling stations create hydrogen on-site with electrolysis, using 100% renewable surplus energy. No deliveries are needed 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.
Are hydrogen-powered cars viable – Toyota’s view
Toyota believes that there is currently no single solution to reducing vehicle emissions or meeting customer transport needs. It is about delivering the right vehicle at the right place and at the right time, so investments have been made in all areas in order to meet immediate, medium- and long-term needs throughout the world. Hydrogen forms an integral part of Toyota’s Beyond Zero campaign.
In the shorter term, petrol-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles look likely to dominate, while pure battery electric vehicles are viewed as a more expensive, niche solution. Fuel cells offer the greatest future potential but require significant investment and the use of advanced technology.
The Toyota Mirai is the world’s first full production hydrogen fuel cell saloon and winner of the World Green Car award in 2016. The first-generation Mirai can be driven for around 300 miles from a full 5kg tank of hydrogen. That quantity of fuel is produced from 50 litres of water, and 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.
Early adopters of the Mirai included the Met Police and private hire firm Green Tomato Cars which both received fleet orders. Such growing confidence in hydrogen-powered transport has allowed Toyota to plan annual production of fuel cell vehicles to 30,000 units by the early 2020s.
Meanwhile, in Germany, ride-pooling start-up CleverShuttle has reported that its fleet of 45 Mirai models has accumulated more than 2.2 million kilometres of emission-free travelling within 24 months. While it took 15 months to reach the first million kilometres, CleverShuttle reached the second in just under ten months, proving that its service is increasing in popularity.
In considering the significance of Mirai, it is worth reflecting on the impact of Toyota’s hybrid technology. With more than 11.7 million petrol-electric hybrid vehicles sold worldwide since the introduction of the original Prius in 1997, and many other vehicle manufacturers adopting similar technologies, Toyota’s leadership is clear.
Hydrogen cars: the future
Thanks to its universal availability, Toyota believes that the long-term use of hydrogen is likely and its adoption will rapidly accelerate. The range of applications will increase and energy suppliers will use it as a fully renewable energy vector, enabling cheaper, more efficient power supply and vehicle refuelling.
The importance of hydrogen in the future was underlined by the formation of the Hydrogen Council, a global group bringing together senior executives from leading fuel, energy, manufacturing and mining businesses. These include Air Liquide, Alstom, Anglo American, BMW, Daimler, Engie, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Linde, Shell, Total and Toyota. Having committed to spend $5 billion in the next five years, the council’s intention is to co-ordinate and accelerate hydrogen investment and deployment in all sectors.
Although there are issues of customer acceptance that will take time to solve, there is an expectation that by the mid- to late-2020s we will see hydrogen power reach the mainstream – a significant shift in the energy sector brought about by growing economic, political and environmental pressure.
Article correct at the time of publication.