Question Of The Day: What Does Japan Know About Fuel Cells That We Don't?

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

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?

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

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  • Hybridkiller Hybridkiller on Jul 01, 2014

    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.

  • Redav Redav on Jul 02, 2014

    "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?

    • Hybridkiller Hybridkiller on Jul 02, 2014

      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.

  • Lorenzo They were willing to go against their customers' preferences to satisfy government, but now that they see it doesn't pencil out, they change their tune. Now is the time to tell 'em what we really want.
  • Tassos Generally I prefer that exploited labor remain domestic like in the service and trade industries. Given the complex and global integration of supply chains and materials sourcing I accept that most manufacturing must be managed by foreign 'kapos'.
  • Lorenzo 1 million barrels is 42 million gallons. The country uses 368 million gallons a DAY. The reserve was set aside after Hurricane Sandy caused a gasoline shortage for emergency vehicles. The hurricane season starts on June 1 and is predicted to be active. Nice going.
  • Chuck Norton Toolguy- I have. It's hard on the knees...
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