Japan’s hydrogen dream

07 April 2017

7 April 2017

In 1925, founder of Toyota Sakichi Toyoda dreamed of what is now known as the ′Sakichi battery’ – a battery that provides 100 horsepower for 36 hours, a weight below 225kg and volume less than 280 litres. A battery that would free Japan forever from its dependence on imported oil. Nearly a century later, it remains only a dream. This failure to develop a battery that meets these heights – and therefore one that can never be as flexible as the fuel of internal combustion engines – has led Toyota in search of an alternative low-carbon fuel that can match their founder’s standards. This led them to hydrogen. 

If flat smartphone batteries had not suggested it by now, despite vast demand a long-life battery breakthrough is not in prospect. While theories exist for new approaches, fundamental level physics set a limit on the potential of any given battery – their Achilles heel is their low energy density. Even the best batteries of today have an energy density of one-twentieth that of petrol, and this is why current electric cars suffer from such limited range. 

For 20 years, since it invented the famous Prius hybrid, Toyota has been the carmaker best-placed to launch an electric vehicle (EV) – but has not done so. Recently it has capitulated in response to tightened emissions standards and deadlines that hydrogen cannot be ready by, but its heart still lies with hydrogen. 

Toyota’s launch of the Mirai hydrogen car in 2014 represents not just an enormous bet by the OEM, but by that of industrial Japan. Production costs are high and highly complex, with the fuel cell stack using expensive rare materials such as platinum. 

One of the reasons Japan is so wedded to the technology is that it needs it more than most other countries. A country with few natural resources, with a 127 million population crammed onto an island with limited non-mountainous land, it is not considered possible for the country to be completely powered by traditional renewables. So Japan hopes to build a ′hydrogen society’ – using hydrogen not just to power cars, but also to heat homes and power industry, to give it energy security. 

In the face of the collapse of its once-revolutionary consumer electronics industry, Japan also hopes that the very difficulty of making hydrogen vehicles will help shield it from the intense competition expected from China and Silicon Valley over electric cars. Electric vehicles, based in the realm of electronics, are highly modular and easy for new entrants to replicate at rock-bottom prices. Hydrogen cars, however, are based in the world of chemistry – involving anodes, cathodes and requiring bespoke, highly skilled engineering expertise. 

Japan’s support for hydrogen goes right up to the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and will be a centrepiece of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with fleets of hydrogen cars and buses taking athletes from the village to the venue – hoping to raise the profile and awareness of the technology around the world before bringing it into the mainstream. 100 hydrogen buses will also be deployed in the Tokyo area ahead of the Olympics. 

Japan also hopes to take the opportunity to dissuade flawed perceptions of the dangers of hydrogen, perhaps influenced by the Hindenburg airship disaster over a century ago, when in reality hydrogen tanks are just as flammable as petrol. Moreover, the gas quickly escapes into the atmosphere if given the chance – and perhaps safety systems can be developed to take advantage of this. 

Yet there is an ever-present threat that, while it is almost certain the technology will be deployed in Japan, it fails to take off appreciably elsewhere. There is a precedent for this, with Japan’s mobile technologies formerly being decades ahead of the rest of the world – but when the rest of the world caught up with the iPhone, it used different wireless standards that have isolated Japan’s mobile phone industry. 

Aside from the necessary investment in charging infrastructure (which, through the Hydrogen Council, is set for upcoming massive investment from oil giants), the biggest problem for a future hydrogen society is locking down a cheap source of carbon-free hydrogen. If it is not cheap enough, electric cars will out-compete them and they will not become mainstream, sidelining Japan’s hydrogen industry. 

Analysts generally agree that the eco-dream of generating hydrogen from the electrolysis (electrical splitting) of pure water (H2O) is far too energy-intensive to be EV-competitive, even at a massive scale. 

A more credible eco-friendly option, as outlined by industrial strategists at METI, is to create hydrogen from Australia’s gigantic formations of low-grade coal, sequestering the carbon (making it unreactive) and re-burying it underground. This burying technique is similar to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies being developed to capture carbon released from power stations to make them carbon-neutral. 

Despite the challenges, the big advantage hydrogen has is its energy density, which makes it potentially highly competitive for making eco heavy, long-distance transport – exactly the types of transport electric vehicles particularly struggle with. 

Meanwhile, outside Japan, confidence in hydrogen is mixed, but with a general view that the technology will become important eventually, although not any time soon. Many are pooling resources with rivals to reduce costs as their budgets strain with other priorities including electric vehicles, autonomous technology and mobility solutions. 

Daimler has said that it will no longer focus its development on hydrogen-powered vehicles, with CEO Dieter Zetsche saying he believes advances made that have led to declining battery costs and increased range for EVs will make hydrogen cars uncompetitive against them. This decision may be influenced by Daimler’s soaring R&D budget being under pressure, and is certainly an exception with key rivals still investing in the technology. BMW is working with Toyota to bring its first fuel cell vehicle to market by 2021, and Toyota’s East Asian peers Hyundai and Honda are also selling fuel cell vehicles today, such as Honda’s Clarity. Honda is developing its technology with General Motors – highlighting that OEMs from both Europe and America are invested in the technology. Hyundai announced its new Hyundai FE SUV at the Geneva Motor Show and sister brand Kia aims to launch its first fuel cell vehicle within three years.