By on June 30, 2014

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A new report from Reuters highlight’s the Japanese auto industry’s increasing focus on hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that has long been written off as dead by many industry observers and battery electric vehicle advocates.

Reuters reports

Japan’s government and top carmakers, including Toyota Motor Corp, are joining forces to bet big that they can speed up the arrival of the fuel cell era: a still costly and complex technology that uses hydrogen as fuel and could virtually end the problem of automotive pollution…With two of Japan’s three biggest automakers going all in on fuel cells, the country’s long-term future as an automotive powerhouse could now hinge largely on the success of what they hope will be a key technology of the next few decades.

While Nissan is a notable holdout (pursuing battery EVs like their signature Nissan Leaf), Toyota and Honda are pursuing hydrogen as the alternative fuel of the future, and they have the backing of the Japanese government.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy… also included a call for subsidies and tax breaks for buyers of fuel-cell vehicles, relaxed curbs on hydrogen fuel stations and other steps under a road map to promote hydrogen energy.

While Honda has been promoting fuel cell technology since the 1990’s, Toyota recently abandoned their EV program in favor of focusing on hydrogen. Despite all of the criticism of hydrogen fuel cells, their cost and the lack of infrastructure, the technology is still alive in this corner of the automotive world – one that is arguably the leader in hybrid cars and alternative powertrains overall.

Industry scuttlebutt has it that Japanese OEMs are convinced that the cost of developing a hydrogen fuel station network is going to be cheaper than developing a 500 mile EV battery, but I’m still curious: what are we the public – and the hydrogen skeptics – missing out on that’s driving Japan to persist with fuel cell technology?

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127 Comments on “Question Of The Day: What Does Japan Know About Fuel Cells That We Don’t?...”


  • avatar
    gottacook

    Please, with respect, either write a little less hurriedly or have someone look over your copy before posting. Even editors (and I’m one myself) need editors. Really, “highlight’s” as a verb? Or, in the preceding entry today, “seperate”? Jeez.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Who cares?

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      What is Japan’s source of domestic hydrogen? Cracking imported LNG? Nuke or renewable powered electrolysis?

      • 0 avatar
        juicy sushi

        I think it’s a mix of LNG and nuclear for now. Geo-thermal is relatively under-utilized for rather insane reasons.

      • 0 avatar
        James2

        Didn’t Japan shut down all of its nuke plants after Fukushima?

        • 0 avatar
          Dirk Stigler

          No. They have better sense than that, not to mention no real domestic fossil fuel reserves.

          The phenomenon of countries shutting down all their nuclear plants after Fukushima deserves a closer look than it’s gotten sofar. Especially in Europe, the alternative to nuclear power is natural gas that comes mainly from Russia. Russia also has a history of backing leftwing groups in other countries, including environmentalists who are the main opponents of nuclear power.

          So e.g. Germany shuts down its nuke plants, becoming dependent on Russian natural gas, and then a few years later Putin invades Ukraine, coming geographically quite close to Germany, but Germany is silent on the matter.

          My guess is that Japan is seeing these events and preparing a backup plan–nuclear powered electrolyzation of seawater–for the day when China or Russia (or both) cut off its seaborne oil imports. No other industrial country really has that particular problem.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            “Russia also has a history of backing leftwing groups in other countries, including environmentalists who are the main opponents of nuclear power.”

            They’re also the main opponents of any fossil fuels…which includes natural gas.

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      “Please, with respect, either write a little less hurriedly or have someone look over your copy before posting.”

      I for one don’t expect any serious journalistic work from this writer – I’m still astonished that he thought ABS in a financial investment context was an acronym for “auto back securities” (it’s Asset Backed Security)
      Not knowing something isn’t a big deal – trying to speak authoritatively without researching it IS.

  • avatar
    Clarence

    One advantage for hydrogen is refuel time. Even with a supercharger, a Tesla takes 10x longer. Can’t wait to see how this competition plays out.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      Another is weight. We’re never going to see airliners powered by batteries, but we may see them powered by hydrogen. (Personally, I doubt it, but it’s possible.)

  • avatar
    Pch101

    This says more about the limitations of batteries than it does about the benefits of fuel cells.

    Batteries have limited potential for improvement. But more to the point, any significant improvements to batteries would probably come from outside of the auto industry.

    If batteries do make some great leap forward, then it will be quite easy for TMC to jump in and build battery-powered cars en masse. The company already knows how to make battery-powered EVs; the problem is with the batteries, not with the cars.

    In contrast, the automakers could potentially make useful improvements to fuel cell technology. The effort may ultimately go nowhere, but the upside potential is greater.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Batteries have limited potential for improvement.

      Ah, Lord Kelvin is back from the dead and posting under a pseudonym.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Today, one can buy a Nissan Leaf with a range of 84 miles.

        In 1897, it was possible to buy an EV with a range of 100 miles.

        • 0 avatar
          mike1dog

          Yes, but that car had a top speed of 20 miles per hour, and probably wasn’t much more than a pair of seats and a battery set on a buckboard. If you drove the Leaf at 20 miles an hour, I’m guessing you could go a lot further than 100 miles, and you’d have a/c, air bags and all the modern conveniences.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            In 117 years, the inherent problem of battery density has not been fixed. And the odds are high that it never will be.

            If you want to be an EV booster, that’s your business, but you should at least understand what it is that you’re supporting and why EVs continue to have many of the same limitations today that they did in the 19th century.

          • 0 avatar
            KixStart

            Quibbling ill becomes you. PCH101 is fundamentally right… we have not seen the quantum leap in battery technology that would make cheap, (reasonably) long-range BEVs competitive.

            I don’t think we can rule out future advances but, yes, they’re not coming from the automakers. The larger point that, should they become available TMC can plug them into their drivetrains as well as anyone else, is certainly true.

          • 0 avatar
            psarhjinian

            “In 117 years, the inherent problem of battery density has not been fixed. And the odds are high that it never will be.”

            This is not strictly true. Modern lead-acid batteries (no clue about what might have been used in 1897) have an energy density of 30-40 watt-hours per kilogram; lithium-ion manages ~150 at present, and it’s been around since 1991.

            That’s not a bad rate of improvement, considering LiIon wasn’t commercially available until 1991. Internal combustion wasn’t such great shakes for it’s first few decades, either.

            This is a little like saying the noxious emissions of an ICE haven’t been fixed, and the odds are that they won’t be fixed. It’s true, but it’s a statement out of context.

            That said, you’re right that pure battery-driven EVs aren’t the one true way; I don’t think they’re intended to be, though. Batteries make a great sink for reclaimed power, or for driving accessories that would otherwise cause parasitic losses (steering, AC). We’ll probably see batteries get bigger and engines reduced to the role of long-range generators before we see pure EVs.

            We’ll certainly see this before we see hydrogen refueling stations. Hydrogen is expensive in net-energy terms, to crack, and it’s awful to transport. Battery swapping stations will probably happen (they’re already quite common in warehouses, where forklift batteries are swapped in the time it takes to refuel) before we see comprehensive distribution of hydrogen or swappable fuel cells.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            An 85 kwh Tesla has a battery that weighs several hundred pounds, yet has the energy equivalence of about 2.5 US gallons of gasoline.

            That same amount of gasoline would weigh about 15 pounds.

            I’m not sure if they’ve improved since, but a 2011 Nissan Leaf had a battery that weighed over 600 pounds, yet had the energy equivalence of less than a gallon of gas.

            Compare that to a gallon of gas, which weighs just six pounds. The density of a battery just can’t come close, and that is a matter of chemistry, not due to a government conspiracy or lazy auto executives.

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      Actually battery density is not the issue in a practical sense. We’re developing technologies that are marketable in the next decade that will make lithium-ion look foolish. The problem is at the core of it is getting it cost-effective, small enough, and capable of withstanding diverse travel. Liquid salts are probably the best option for long-term battery storage and in 10-20 years we’ll probably see them enter as home-center solutions for the solar panel crowd. The issue is getting a liquid salt battery to play nice in a vehicle.

      Regardless, the auto industry has no initiative to get involved in that R&D fight because Fuel Cells and Li-ion are reasonable alternatives available today.

      • 0 avatar
        martinwinlow

        Nope. The problem is – what are you going to use to charge your 500 or 1000 mile battery when you have invented it and installed it in an EV? The amount of power required to transfer from charger to car in a reasonable amount of time – 30 – 60 minutes – would be so big as to be completely impractical – physically and cost-wise.

        Besides, why anyone would want to be able to drive for 5 or more hours without a break is beyond me. As it is Tesla has proved that a reasonable compromise between range and charging time is here *now*. So why are Toyota and Honda pursuing their lunatic pipe-dream of H2-fueled FCVs? Because they get 7 times the compliance credits of an EV allowing them to carry on flogging their dead-horse ICE tech to people who are to simple to realise how monumental a ride Big Oil is taking them on.

        • 0 avatar
          KixStart

          “Besides, why anyone would want to be able to drive for 5 or more hours without a break is beyond me.”

          We’re just back from a very long trip. We’ll take quick breaks every couple hours but they’re often no more than 10 minutes and we get right back going again. If you’re on the Ohio turnpike, there’s not a lot of appeal to stopping for any length of time, anyway.

          At those breaks, we don’t even necessarily refuel. I filled the car 9 times on this trip; 3 fills were after 400-499 miles of driving and 3 were actually after 500+ miles of driving.

          I would not want a car that required an hour of “refuelling” time for every 3-4 hours of driving.

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      “If batteries do make some great leap forward, then it will be quite easy for TMC to jump in and build battery-powered cars en masse. The company already knows how to make battery-powered EVs; the problem is with the batteries, not with the cars.
      In contrast, the automakers could potentially make useful improvements to fuel cell technology. The effort may ultimately go nowhere, but the upside potential is greater.”

      Bingo.

      For all that we don’t know, we do know that #1, you don’t get to be the world’s biggest auto maker by being stupid and #2, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Asians were (potentially) decades ahead of the US and Europe in developing a winning strategy for building the right kind of cars at the right time.

  • avatar
    Waterview

    A legitimate question: isn’t the biggest issue with fuel cells the cost and time to implement refueling stations? If we could get that done, wouldn’t the resulting product be measurably cheaper than gas or electricity and better environmentally? What am I missing?

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Fuel cells are expensive, unreliable and not durable.

      If that product problem can be fixed, then there is the issue of the lack of fueling infrastructure.

      • 0 avatar
        VoGo

        Expensive? Yes, today, because of all the R&D required. This will change.

        Unreliable and not durable? Hang on there: I doubt that Toyota and Honda – the two titans of reliable, durable cars – would put their names on vehicles that don’t meet their standards.

        Lack of infrastructure? Sure. But then, where was the cable infrastructure 30 years ago? Where was 4G just 5 years ago? That just takes investment, which is easy when the market sees a future in the technology.

        Japan is physically a lot smaller than the US, and has almost no natural energy resources like oil. If they can make the technology economically feasible, then it will happen, whether or not the B&B approve.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Fuel cells are expensive because of the materials that are used to make them. And those costs don’t scale.

          They’re unreliable and lack durability for similar reasons. It will take research to figure out if/how they can be improved.

          California forces the automakers to produce EVs or fuel cell cars. California is a critical market for both Toyota and Honda.

          Today, you can’t buy a Honda Clarity, you can only lease it. The car is not ready for prime time, losses are produced on each one, and Honda surely wants to tear them down at the end of their leases so that they can learn more about them. These are science experiments on wheels, not ready for high-volume mass production.

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            I don’t contend that fuel cell vehicles are ready for high volume production.

            I merely suggest that instead of focusing solely on the drawbacks that we open ourselves up to the possibilities.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            If you don’t focus on the drawbacks, then the drawbacks can’t be fixed.

            The key to making them work is fixing what is wrong with them. Ignoring the problems doesn’t help.

          • 0 avatar
            Stephen7

            All technology costs scale, it’s just a matter of time and volume. Don’t tell me you still have a flip phone and CRT TV because the new technology is unreliable or too expensive.

            The EV1 was only available as a lease when it was released too. Now you can not only buy any one of a number of production EVs, but also at lower cost that just a few years ago. Today’s $70k FCV could quite possible be $35k in a few years.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            “All technology costs scale”

            I wasn’t talking about technology.

            The issue is one of ***materials*** costs. Rare earth metals don’t scale. Making fuel cells out of more plentiful, cheaper materials may be the answer.

        • 0 avatar
          KixStart

          VoGo: “Unreliable and not durable? Hang on there: I doubt that Toyota and Honda – the two titans of reliable, durable cars – would put their names on vehicles that don’t meet their standards.”

          I was thinking much the same thing.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            California forces every major automaker that plays there to be in the EV and/or fuel cell market.

          • 0 avatar
            KixStart

            I can’t speak authoritatively, but I strongly suspect it’s cheaper to build an EV compliance car. They could probably distort the Prius drivetrain into a vehicle that met almost any ZEV mandate. If they’re working on fuel cell tech, I’m inclined to think it’s because they believe it has potential.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Fuel cells may have potential, but they aren’t ready for mass production.

            Leasing a few fuel cell cars to Southern Californians is not going to hurt their reputation for reliability, particularly when the lessees understand that they are part of what is essentially a testing program. Durability isn’t a problem in this case, since the lease will end before the fuel cells deteriorate.

          • 0 avatar
            Steve65

            “… Southern Californians … particularly when the lessees understand that they are part of what is essentially a testing program.”

            The Southern California EV-1 lessees made a very public spectacle of their failure to grasp this idea. I’m not confident that the same demographic a few years later will be any smarter.

        • 0 avatar
          ellomdian

          I am surprised it took this long for someone to make the obvious point; do you think that a relatively small, land-locked country with a high population density in its urban areas is a good prototype for rolling out a new refueling infrastructure? Seems to me that the biggest argument against H in the US is that you would have to build stations in the middle-of-nowhere KS to make travel practical.

          • 0 avatar
            psarhjinian

            Hydrogen does not transport well; it leaks through damn-near everything.

            Even if you built a station, you’d have to deal with losses.

          • 0 avatar
            Stephen7

            Considering F-150s outnumber Volts in Kansas by what, 1000 to 1? I don’t think anyone’s priority will be building hydrogen infrastructure. Same goes for rural Japan. Tokyo and Osaka, or California and the NE corridor on the other hand… Most people I know that travel cross-country don’t do it in a car, even one that runs on gasoline.

          • 0 avatar
            Lorenzo

            Good point about Japan as the prime market. With the nuclear plants shut down, Japan doesn’t need the draw of electric vehicles to contend with. Getting hydrogen from LNG (Indonesia is loaded) makes more sense for Japan than EVs OR ICEs. They don’t have a trillion barrels of oil deposits in shale like the US, so they’ll keep building ICEs for the US and keep making money in their two main markets.

        • 0 avatar
          DrGastro997

          Very well said VoGo. I cannot imagine Toyota and Honda engineers developing a product that will crush their reputation for quality (some refer to it as obsessive and crazy attention to details). Many doubted hybrid technology to become a mass produced product bit Toyota proved the skeptics wrong. We can doubt hydrogen fuel cell technology but there’s no doubt the Japanese will get it right. The government will push this until it’s reality.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        A bigger problem is that hydrogen is effectively a really lousy battery. At this point, it takes far more energy to dissociate hydrogen from what it is bound to than the hydrogen can give up in a fuel cell. That might be OK if we had say nuclear fusion to power the process, but with current power sources it just makes for a very inefficient energy storage system.

        I do think that hydrogen solves a lot of problems of battery tech, particularly the refueling time issue.

        • 0 avatar

          I just wanted to point out something which I suspect krhodes, Pch, and Kix are all as aware of as I am, but that others may not realize: the outcome of efforts to make reliable, durable fuel cells may be uncertain, but it is far more likely to succeed than efforts to make nuclear fusion work on earth. I would also put money on EVs long before I’d put it on fusion (but I agree with the three above-named that EVs approaching gasoline cars in versatility are unlikely. [would be happy to be proven wrong].)

          • 0 avatar
            KixStart

            “I just wanted to point out something which I suspect krhodes, Pch, and Kix are all as aware of as I am, but that others may not realize: the outcome of efforts to make reliable, durable fuel cells may be uncertain, but it is far more likely to succeed than efforts to make nuclear fusion work on earth.”

            I’m a bit more optimistic than you but I do think it’s a better use of money to find ways to use the stellar fusion reactor we already have, rather than try to build a new type here on Earth.

            :)

          • 0 avatar
            hybridkiller

            I think there will need to be some kind of fundamental breakthrough in particle physics before any of this stuff is going to be economically viable.
            But it will happen, it’s just a question of when / how long.

        • 0 avatar
          Russycle

          The refueling time issue is the only problem it solves, that I can see, and as you note there’s a lot of down-side to hydrogen. I just can’t see it taking off. I’d rather have a EV for normal driving and rent an ICE for longer trips. Admittedly, that won’t work for everyone…but it would for many of us.

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          That’s my beef with H2 – it would initiate the development of an inherently inefficient transport fuel network, rivaling the dumbness of the existing one (which is distributing and dispensing a more energy-dense fuel).
          The fuel-cell vehicle still needs a battery to recover stopping energy, and to accept energy from the fuel cell stack for quick delivery to the motor.
          So, a(n) FCV is an EV that you have to fill up at a “gas” station.
          There is a perfect blend of stupidity in that concept.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            @shaker –

            Except that the vehicles themselves give off no emissions. That’s the big difference.

            And I don’t see such a big issue with setting up hydrogen refueling stations, or bringing the fuel to them – seems to be a mirror for today’s gas stations, and that system seems to work pretty well.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        I don’t see the fueling “infrastructure” as a big issue – how hard is it to build a gas station today? I can’t imagine hydrogen refueling would be that much more difficult.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      I lack omniscience, but would like to propose a hypothetical in answer to the question in the title. If a Japanese government/industrial collaborative R&D project (Nissan is French now, right?) to make reliable and less raw material cost intensive fuel cells, how would their best course actions differ from what we’re seeing? I’m not so sure of my own wit that I can write off Toyonda’s decision makers and say they must be nuts because I don’t have information that supports their current actions.

  • avatar
    carguy

    “What Does Japan Know About Fuel Cells That We Don’t?”

    Maybe that hydrogen is a a better battery than most existing and medium-term future alternatives? Sure the technology still has its problems but maybe they have decided that those are more easily solvable than designing batteries with 300 miles ranges than can be recharged in less than 10 minutes?

    • 0 avatar
      carve

      They’re quicker to refuel and marginally lighter, but they’re a fraction of the energy efficiency.

      Could you imagine the size of cooling system you’d need if you compressed 300 miles of hydrogen in 10 minutes!?

  • avatar
    340-4

    Talked to a physicist in the know – the key here is energy density.

    He explained to me what the difference in energy density is between fossil fuels, hydrogen, and batteries of various types.

    Batteries are dead last by a wide margin and may never catch up.

    I think they are on the right path.

    Plus, with an organic (it’s coming!) fuel cell, we could avoid nasty rare earth elements, metals, etc. for batteries and the associated mining, environmental design, disposal issues, etc.

    And… home fueling, with water, with a hydrogen generating system right in your garage.

    They are on the right path.

    But Big Oil will not go down without a fight. Perhaps they’ll try to buy these companies to keep it buried? Fun to speculate.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      That’s the essence of the issue: companies that specialize in building cars can’t fix the energy density problem inherent to batteries. That solution would have to come from a lab, and could very well be impossible to fix.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      Or perhaps big oil will smell the business opportunities and aim to become big hydrogen as well?

      We need not be overly cynical.

      Personally, I think another point is that this might tie in very well with power grid decentralization. If you look at what’s going on in Germany (http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/german-bioenergy-villages-energy-supply) and put that together with the idea proposed by all of Japan’s big 3 (partly due to Japan’s propensity for natural disasters) of using cars as electricity generators for homes (ie http://www.nissan-global.com/EN/TECHNOLOGY/OVERVIEW/leaf_to_home.html) and perhaps they see fuel cells as a great way to provide both a car powertrain, and a home generator (when necessary). If you added in battery tech as well for storage from energy recovery (while driving) and you could also propose the car as a power storage unit for the home…

      • 0 avatar
        b787

        Big Oil loves hydrogen. Even they are aware oil will eventually ran out, so they are looking for alternatives. While electrical grid is already in place, hydrogen infrastructure is virtually inexistent. Making hydrogen from hydrocarbons is currently the most sensible way we know, but the technology is relatively underdeveloped. In future we can expect a slew of new methods for hydrogen production, many with carbon capture and storage. I’m willing to bet, most of future hydrogen production will be run by existing oil companies.

        Some say we should just burn the natural gas directly, but in this case we are still bound by the inefficiency of the heat engine, so well-to-wheel efficiencies are significantly lower.

  • avatar
    msmitka

    I had the same question as I read the Japanese business press last month while moving around the country and attending conferences. First, there’s government support for refueling stations. Tied to that, there’s government support for R&D. The total number of vehicles set to be produced is low. But the same was/is true of batteries, so no answer there.

    Second, there has been progress on how to manufacture the membranes and on elminating the need to precisely control humidity; the units are now much smaller than the Ford one I test drove several years ago. But the systems still need pressurization, and don’t like cold. More important, it appears there have been no improvements on storage other than developing standardized tanks that the Japanese road safety authorities provisionally approved. They still are costly and eat up space, so fuel cells are good for buses but not so much for passenger cars.

    Finally, there’s CARB [CA Air Resources Board] and offset trading, the strategy through which Tesla has made most of its money. That I believe is the real reason Honda and Toyota continue to pursue this. Add in marketing pizzazz, where Tesla is the runaway market leader. Here Toyota is thinking of its experience with the Prius, which makes money because it became a yuppie vehicle of choice, meaning they could sell a reasonable volume of vehicles, all fully-loaded, not the bare-boned ones we’d see if what purchasers really wanted was fuel efficiency. (Count the number of bare-bones models you find relative to loaded ones using one of the standard inventory search engines!)

    For fuel efficiency, I got 52 mpg yesterday driving around Richmond VA, dropping to 45 mpg when I hit the Blue Ridge and the hills around where I live – all in a Chevy Cruze at a price point far below a Prius. The next Cruze model will do even better, and will have stop-start for non-highway gains. So I’m convinced that in 2020 no alternative powertrain (given stupid policies towards diesel taxing / pricing in the US) will be eating into the gasoline ICE segment. (Beyond 2020 supply constraints will be less binding….so I’m arguing both on the basis of potential demand and potential supply.)

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks! Very interesting account. Including your experience with the Cruze.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      I also had a (2014) Cruze 2LT rental yesterday, which I used to get from Oklahoma City to Dallas, and back again. Even in the upper 80-MPH range, it was still in the thirties.

      • 0 avatar
        SatelliteView

        Total BS. On Sunday I was driving a 2003 Volvo XC-70 at a steady 75mph and got 60+ mpg, trans that prius. But this is baloney, the freeway was gently sloping downwards, from 5000 feet to 1500 over 50 or so miles.

        I bet prius would be 25-35% more efficient than your cruise in that same drive of yours

    • 0 avatar
      Stephen7

      I’m not sure someone living in the southwest pulling in 25 kWh from their roof and getting the equivalent of 100 mpg is going to be persuaded by the Cruze anecdotes. I’m sure the diesel crowd will appreciate it though.

    • 0 avatar
      Victor

      Interesting points. But I will point out that there’s one key aspect of the whole scenario that has been overlooked by most people here. The battle between electric cars and hydrogen is not really a battle of who will hold the cards in the future of motoring, but instead of what the next fashion will be.

      The Oil industry seems to feel pretty confident of its future relevance. First and foremost, because Oil is still pumping out almost everywhere. The doomsday fanatics keep saying it will run out, but not only new fields and wells are being found today, but also now there’s schist rock oil. So Oil doesn’t look like it is going anywhere. A few years ago we were all worried that Brent crude would soon break the 100 dollars barrier and oil would be unviable. Brent crude goes for 116 dollars these days and the ICE is still going strong.

      And there is also ethanol, a technology fully dominated by the oil industry and by the auto industry. My Citroen runs on any mixture of ethanol and gas, and I don’t remember when was the last time I didn’t use ethanol.

      The battery technology available today makes electric cars pointless. And the electric car is a lot less green that people like to think. Somewhere there will still be either a nuclear, or a thermoelectric plant producing power and polluting one way or another. It is like you said, nobody really buys a Prius to save the world. The electric car is an aspirational buy, and on that game Tesla won already.

      Enters the hydrogen car. This will be the next Prius. Real world answers will be still coming from the ICE, not until 2020 but maybe all the way through the very century we’re in. Even if oil gets too expensive – which schist rock oil tells me it won’t happen any time soon – there’s still ethanol and other biofuels.

      Until humanity can actually produce vast quantities of clean energy to either power a massive fleet of a billion electric cars, or to break all those molecules into pure hydrogen. And decent batteries, while at it.

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        +1. There are hydrocarbons aplenty, and 90% of our grandkids will be driving ICE powered vehicles.

        • 0 avatar
          hybridkiller

          I know it looks that way right now because of the US fracking boom and relative abundance of nat gas, but energy experts are already warning that estimates of shale reserves have been too optimistic. It also will become increasingly costly to extract those reserves.

          The world is still largely dependent on middle east oil. The quicker we can marginalize that factor, the sooner the turmoil in that region becomes globally insignificant.

          And unless you’re one of those who think 95% of the scientific community are knuckleheads, there’s that pesky carbon emissions / climate change thing. It’s not just a supply issue.

          Many of our biggest problems are a result of the fact that we tend to wait until there’s a crisis to fix anything.
          Nothing to worry about, everything’s fine – right up until the moment it isn’t.

          • 0 avatar
            carve

            How does hydrogen fix that? It’s just as inefficient as ICE, and the energy comes from fossil fuels. If we had cheap nuclear…perhaps…but batteries would still require a lot less power.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      Wow…You must have the Trifecta Tune!!!

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      “For fuel efficiency, I got 52 mpg yesterday driving around Richmond VA, dropping to 45 mpg when I hit the Blue Ridge and the hills around where I live – all in a Chevy Cruze at a price point far below a Prius.”

      Drive the car for 1000+ miles with varying wind conditions, zero-sum elevation changes, and CALCULATE the long-term average mpg (car mpg computers can be off by as much as 10%)
      Then you can start making claims about what the car is realistically capable of.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    Battery is viable, but a dead end. Long Charging times and low energy density haven’t been overcome. Hydrogen is viable and had much room for further refinements and most importantly, cost reduction.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Toyota plans to store their hydrogen at 700 BAR, or 10,000 PSI. That should be festive in the event of a collision.

    Japan has no natural gas resources and after Fukushima will not have any nuclear power, so I wonder how they plan to produce hydrogen for the domestic market.

    After factoring in the energy required to produce and then to compress hydrogen, the net efficiency isn’t much better than an ICE. And, they’re still trying to get durability past the 150,000 mile mark.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      “Toyota plans to store their hydrogen at 700 BAR, or 10,000 PSI. That should be festive in the event of a collision.”

      Hydrogen doesn’t usually explode. It does burn, but it also dissipates very quickly into the air, so it doesn’t burn for long

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        Stupid WordPress. I need to think this through a little more; but, yes, at 700 bar that would be pretty spectacular.

        • 0 avatar
          jpolicke

          Rupturing a container of any gas, flammable or not, at 700 BAR is going to be a good thing to be far from.

          • 0 avatar
            msmitka

            High-pressure storage has been around a long while. Valves are all recessed so they can’t sheer off; cylindrical tanks are really strong and really hard to puncture. However, 10,000 PSI requires different (and more expensive) connectors than (say) CNG or even 5000 PSI tanks. And more expensive tanks. And pressure step-down equipment.

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            >> Rupturing a container of any gas, flammable or not, at 700 BAR is going to be a good thing to be far from.

            What happens in a long underwater tunnel?

            >> High-pressure storage has been around a long while…

            Yes, and ignition switches have been around even longer.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      The germans have developed a fuel cell powered submarine. I am sure survivability in the event of said sub entering combat was accounted for. Granted, this is a much bigger application then an automobile, but I am sure the physics can be easier overcome than the limitations of batteries we currently face.

      Also, didn’t Japan restart all of there reactors (Fukushima excepted of course)?

  • avatar
    mcs

    If they perfect them, the gasoline powered SOC fuel cell could be the best of both worlds. They’re working on them at the University of Maryland and a few other labs around the country. I think the main problem with them is lowering the operating temperature. They’ve been making progress.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    One possibility for Japanese optimism is the concept of reforming alcohol or another liquid hydrocarbon on the fly to produce hydrogen for the fuel cell. If you got that working and coupled it with batteries to recapture energy when braking, an all-electric system might be possible that solved both the range and fuel storage issues of an EV. Of course, this would only be truly green if the liquid fuel could be produced cost-effectively without using more fossil fuels as input that are output. This would probably mean a breakthru in cellulosic alcohol that hes not yet been made.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      Ammonia: http://www.theengineer.co.uk/automotive/news/hydrogen-breakthrough-paves-way-for-ammonia-fuelled-cars/1018805.article

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Methanol is one of the simpler liquid fuels to manufacture from relatively inexpensive feedstock like natural gas or coal instead of oil. The processes for making methanol scale up to significant volumes fairly well too. There is already strong demand for methanol for chemical and plastics manufacturing in China.

      http://www.chemweek.com/lab/Olefin-production-boosts-demand-for-coal-based-methanol-in-China_54949.html

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Japanese OEMs are convinced that the cost of developing a hydrogen fuel station network is going to be cheaper than developing a 500 mile EV battery”

    This is their answer to the question (what do they know that we don’t?), but both the question and their answer are incorrect.

    A 500-mile EV battery is possible today, if Tesla built a 2-seat Model S and stuffed the rest with cells.

    Also, I can’t think of anything more expensive than developing a hydrogen fuel network.

    Finally, who needs a 500-mile battery? Such a demand (which used to be 300 miles, but now I see it’s 500 miles) is the usual straw man argument for why someone won’t buy an EV. Nissan – a “real” car company – learned early on that some 90% of motorists’ needs could be met with a short-range EV like the Leaf. This is still true.

    Teslas are now crossing the country; it will be the 12th of Never when a HFCV can do that.

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      “Nissan – a “real” car company – learned early on that some 90% of motorists’ needs could be met with a short-range EV like the Leaf. This is still true.”

      However, meeting 90% of motorists’ needs does not seem to mean large sales. The Leaf would be a good second car for almost all families and a great third car for those families that have 3. But sales don’t reflect this because people don’t buy cars for their actual needs, they buy them for their imagined needs.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      This theoretical 500 mile battery would weigh over half a ton, cost as much as a well-equipped midsize family sedan and would be too large to be installed in the aforementioned midsize family sedan.

      As a practical matter, it doesn’t work.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        >> This theoretical 500 mile battery would weigh over half a ton, cost as much as a well-equipped midsize family sedan and would be too large to be installed in the aforementioned midsize family sedan.

        Maybe with current lithium-ion technology, but certainly not with metal-air batteries. Sure, metal-air batteries aren’t there yet, but they’ve been making progress. There’s other crazy stuff like carbon nanontube spring batteries. I don’t have time to post links, but google metal-air and some of the other battery tech and do some research.

        This reminds me of the “you’ll never be able to send video over the internet because of the laws of physics” and similar statements we used to hear years ago. I’ve heard it all before.

        http://www.beyondlithiumion.org/web/program.php

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          “This reminds me of the “you’ll never be able to send video over the internet because of the laws of physics” and similar statements we used to hear years ago”

          I don’t see why it would. I merely pointed out that this 500 mile EV can’t exist with today’s technology due to bulk, cost and weight.

          As a member of the reality-based community, I prefer to deal with facts, and that’s a fact. If the facts change, then one can adjust accordingly, but we should not confuse what might be with what is.

        • 0 avatar
          KixStart

          mcs: ” www dot beyondlithiumion dot org”

          I’ll believe in any of whatever’s at that site as soon as I can buy an example of it at Target.

          The 500 mile, affordable, automotive battery pack is like controlled fusion; it has been just around the corner for the last 70 years.

          And I don’t know who was pooh-poohing the idea of video over the internet. I’m pretty sure that people were sending video porn over the internet pretty much from Day 1.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      Agreed – I think if the range of a LEAF could be doubled (which, IMHO, is possible in short order), and Nissan could throw in 4 free rentals per year for “road trips”, they would probably triple their sales.
      “Mainstream” EV’s are not even a decade old, yet are being written off – I don’t get it.
      Yes, there’s the requirement of “planning”, and you can’t decide one day that “I’m going to just drive 200 miles for some ice cream at that place from my childhood”, but damn, such “freedoms” have a price.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        “I think if the range of a LEAF could be doubled (which, IMHO, is possible in short order)”

        What do you know that Nissan’s engineers don’t?

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          There are stories every day in science journals about the work being done on batteries for transportation; there are myriad improvements that are in the early stages; choosing the correct and least costly is what takes time.
          With my tin-foil hat tightly in place, I’d assume that Big Oil would find ways to resist these efforts.

  • avatar
    George B

    Toyota and Honda are willing to spend Japanese government money on a long-term research project. They get to act “green” spending other peoples money and the lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure means they won’t be pressured to build many money losing fuel cell vehicles. Win-win!

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      +1 I think this is about it.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      T&h is supposedly dropping their bev programs, which seem to indicate they believe there is more to this than milking the govt.

      Don’t follow japan very closely anymore, but a few decades back, conventional wisdom had it that the japanese, by the time new tech was officially announced, it was much further developed than what was the case in the west. Supposedly due to fear of losing face or some such. Japanese scientists, particularly in corporate labs, are still much more insular than in the west. If anyone, anywhere, anymore are likely to “know” something without the rest of the world being along, its likely them.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      Well thats still a better return than all the money the US Government spent on our auto industry. All we got was a bunch of killer Cobalts for our billions. Maybe the Japanese will get a tangible return.

  • avatar
    TW5

    Japan has a problem. They need oil, but they don’t have any. Prius/Insight were developed to reduce oil consumption. Now Japan is pushing H2 vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I think alot of countries have the same problem.

      • 0 avatar
        TW5

        True, but they don’t plan their economies around energy shortages. They act like the US by trying to convert energy imports into finished goods and economic growth. The Japanese are sensitive to energy trade imbalance, and they address the problem directly.

        The problem has been on the front burner since the tsunami wrecked Fukushima.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          I’ll be curious to see if and how they can address the shortage. I was under the impression all of the reactors have been down since 2011. I also seem to recall at the time a massive amount of fuel oil being imported from Vladivostok to make up for the shortage of nuclear power.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      I’ve always heard that the driving design brief for the Prius was realistically maximizing pollutant reduction, with the fuel mileage being essentially a bonus side effect (since the best way to reduce emissions is to use less fuel.) Does anybody have period news accounts to look up? I can never find much when I search online.

    • 0 avatar
      Stephen7

      That’s only part of the reason. 30-40 years ago the air in Japan was about as toxic as China’s is now. They don’t have much in the way of fossil fuel resources, but their bigger goal was to reduce emissions since about about half the population lives on about 2% of the land. The other big factor is refuel time and range that seem to be paramount for the US market. That and, particularly in big cities, not everyone has a garage to plug an EV into.

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      There are more factors involved here than just energy supply/source issues. Japan desperately needs an economic shot-in-the-arm, Abenomics isn’t working.
      Climate change and continued middle east instability are driving technology as much, if not more than, the long-term energy reserve issue.
      From Toyota’s perspective, if they can be the first to develop economically viable, fossil fuel-less propulsion and scale it, that would effectively solidify their global dominance for decades to come.

  • avatar
    Stovebolt

    When I first heard about hydrogen vehicles with only water dribbling from the exhausts, I didn’t think anything could be better. A little research revealed that a substantial amount of energy is required to derive hydrogen, as are feed materials. There are also challenging issues with high pressure, storage, and transportation since hydrogen causes most metals and other materials to deteriorate. Hydrogen reminds me of Ethanol, except with greater technical challenges and less existing infrastructure. I find it about as attractive as a Honda Clarity FCV for $569 a month.

    • 0 avatar
      Stovebolt

      Oops, neglected to answer the question. There’s no evidence that Hydrogen makes any more sense in Japan than it does in the US. A free lunch appeals to everyone; the comments here indicate just how “free” this one is.

      • 0 avatar
        hybridkiller

        I would suggest that the Asians in general, and the Japanese in particular, have traditionally been more disciplined and long-term focused than Americans. We like tech advancements, but we want them fast and cheap.
        Regardless of how the hydrogen thing plays out, somebody’s going to solve these problems eventually. If our attitude is, “it can’t be done so let’s not bother trying” then, once again, the Japanese are likely to make us look like chumps in the global auto industry.

  • avatar
    HerrKaLeun

    The article neglects to mention scientific properties of H:
    – very expensive to compress to get suitable energy densiry. This isn’t a home garage compressor duty.
    – it requires huge amounts of electricity or natural gas to produce. It is not an eenergy source. Overall efficiency maybe is a third of usin EV or natural gas ICE.
    – it leaks like crazy. This isn’t only dangerous, it also wastes fuel if your car is only half full after parking it for a week.
    – installations need to meet building code. Look up what electrical code requires for just some batteries that release very minor amounts of H. Then imagine that in your garage.. you need to vent, proably wire explosionproof etc.

    This is the new corn ethanol, except really expensive and wasteful.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Well, to answer the QOTD directly, what Toyota does know that people 10 to 15 years ago didn’t is miniaturization of the fuel cell such that it fits in a not particularly large vehicle yet has decent power output.

    Ballard, who used to be in the forefront of this technology a decade and more ago, just could not figure out how to make the fuel cell smaller, so used buses to demonstrate their system. Toyota has beaten that handily.

    Now whether they should have bothered is another question. Hydrogen is the fuel for bug-eyed greenie future optimists who have not the wit, training or experience to logically work out the consequences which are ably enumerated by many of the above comments. Except in Iceland and other areas where geothermal energy is used to electrolyse water or strip the carbon atom from methane; i.e. virtually free, production of hydrogen makes little sense as a mass market fuel.

    Why the Japanese government thinks this is a great idea is beyond me. The Koreans and Hyundai are rushing down the same path, probably not because they gave the matter any thought whatsoever, but want to keep up with the Joneses.

    Pretty typical of modern society where people with gigantic egos and no talent press you to vote for them and put them at the helms of power, and where technological savvy seems to be equated to the ability of an eight year old to type inane messages on a phone or run an app .

    We’re on a downward spiral..

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      “Why the Japanese government thinks this is a great idea is beyond me. The Koreans and Hyundai are rushing down the same path, probably not because they gave the matter any thought whatsoever, but want to keep up with the Joneses.”

      Do you seriously believe that they’re all THAT stupid?

      Do you really believe that a bunch of wannabe physicists posting on an internet blog are THAT smart?

      I’m guessing that there are more than a few things in this world that are “beyond” you.

  • avatar

    The carmakers may not know anything about fuel cells that we don’t, but they know something about the government subsidies. That is the key to explain their interest in this dead-end technology.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      I’d rather subsidize “dead end technology” that has a hope of producing something tangible versus the “dead end management” that we US taxpayers subsidize in out own auto industry.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      That’s the thing that flummoxes me — the Japanese are probably the most public transit dependent society in that hemisphere, yet are attempting to develop a technology that relies on a fueling infrastructure more suitable to ‘public transit averse’ societies (like US).
      I’m certainly losing the plot on this one.

      • 0 avatar
        hybridkiller

        For the Japanese government it’s not about domestic social needs (sound familiar?), it’s about GDP and export trade, not to mention licensing of the technology itself. IOW, it’s about money (as usual) and global economic competitiveness.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      “Dead end” more accurately describes fossil fuels. Setting aside all the arguments about climate change, the stuff’s going to run out at some point, and it’ll just keep getting more and more expensive until that point due to rising demand. And that’s why governments subsidize research into alt energy – the current energy providers won’t, because they’re invested in the status quo.

      And sooner or later, emerging economies like China and India will figure out that “burn baby burn” is going to create massive ecological issues (and again, we’re just talking the stuff that has nothing to do with climate change).

      Hydrogen is an energy source the entire industrialized world could use.

      • 0 avatar
        hybridkiller

        “…emerging economies like China and India will figure out that “burn baby burn” is going to create massive ecological issues…”

        I agree with your comments, I’d just like to point out that China is no longer characterized as “emerging” – they are the second largest economy in the world (US is still #1, but maybe not for much longer). And they already have serious air quality issues which they are working on, but similar to the US, internal politics and their obsession with trying to prop up unsustainably high GDP growth are getting in the way.

        • 0 avatar
          KixStart

          Part of China is a First World economy, for sure. However, the other part, probably a half billion people, is a Third World economy.

          • 0 avatar
            hybridkiller

            That’s pretty funny – kind of like saying California is a first-world economy but Mississippi is a third-world economy.
            Not sure what it has to do with my comment, but funny nonetheless.
            Thanks for playing!

          • 0 avatar
            KixStart

            hybridkiller,

            Consider the contrast between the US and China. Most of the US is relatively well off. Most of China is not. They have more reason to pursue growth at all costs than we do.

            The disparity in China between the haves and the remaining multitudes of have-nots could lead to a new revolution. I doubt the Party wants that.

          • 0 avatar
            hybridkiller

            I appreciate your point and I don’t disagree, but it has little to do with my comment. Global bond, currency, and commodities markets don’t slice-n-dice nations internally like that. When I said China is the world’s second largest economy, that’s a hard fact – they done already emerged bro.
            Thus my comment – China (as a nation, not just certain parts of it) is no longer CHARACTERIZED as an emerging economy, and certainly not by people in the financial world.
            All that said, feel free to use outdated terminology (re China) that has since been abandoned by the very people who adopted it to begin with.

  • avatar
    hybridkiller

    Dead-end technology…

    Hmm…

    I know this is boring ancient history to some, but early pioneers of flight (Wright Bros etc) were widely and incessantly ridiculed for being fools and idiots.

  • avatar
    redav

    “What does Japan know … ?”

    Dumb question. What does the US know about corn-based ethanol that everyone else doesn’t know? (Nothing, it’s just a matter of money, votes, power, etc.). I don’t know their money trail, and I don’t really care. If Toyota continues down the path they seem to be, it will fail similar to how E85 is a failure.

    Hydrogen has a couple advantages over batteries, and batteries have certain advantages over hydrogen. Given those two technologies, batteries will win. For everyone wondering where the promised breakthroughs for batteries is, the same can be asked about the breakthroughs for producing hydrogen.

    I am also not yet convinced that water-vapor-as-exhaust will forever be considered “no pollution.” When I was in school, CO2 was still not a pollutant. Being all-to-familiar with the effects of humidity and clouds on weather, I just can’t buy casual claims that “It’s natural” (like CO2) and “It constantly removed from the atmosphere” (like plants do with CO2). If it turns out that it’s a complete non-issue, great! But if it turns out that water-vapor-as-exhaust also causes some form of climate change, will the scientific community ever be able to clean the egg off its face?

    • 0 avatar
      hybridkiller

      I wouldn’t worry about water vapor in the atmosphere.
      #1, air temperature and barometric pressure determine how much moisture the air can hold, emitting more water vapor doesn’t change that.
      #2, as soon as the air temp falls below dew point the moisture in the air condenses into liquid form – the planet is already literally covered with water so your vapor exhaust would be – wait for it…

      a drop in the bucket.

      The thing your theory misses is that CO2 has no liquid state and can’t condense like water vapor does – drop the temp low enough and it goes straight from a gas to a solid (“dry ice”). At normal earth surface temps it remains a gas.

      I think the scientific community is safe from facial egg on this one.


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