By on April 24, 2017

Eneos Gas Station With Hydrogen Pumps

The United States and Canada don’t have much of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure to speak of, but Japanese automakers continue sending fuel cell vehicles across the ocean anyway. Vehicles like the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai have been touted as the environmental saviors of tomorrow but, with the exception of California, there really isn’t a place for them in the North America of today. So why do Japanese manufactures continue to bother with hydrogen?

The main reason is because Japan has bought into a future that America doesn’t seem interested in. With three of its automakers already producing fuel cell cars, the government as adopted a fairly aggressive plan to adopt hydrogen for homes, business, and cars by 2030 — meaning the U.S. probably won’t see these vehicles vanish anytime soon. 

Japan’s plan calls for a nationwide hydrogen distribution system so expansive that it would eventually reduce vehicle and fuel prices to a point that would make them competitive with their internal combustion counterparts. By 2030, the country wants 900 commercial hydrogen fueling stations attached to a vast network that also feeds powerplants and farms. It hopes to service 40,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2020, 200,000 by 2025, and over 800,000 in 2030.

However, Japan doesn’t have any illusions that the normalization will be easy. “This is a very challenging goal,” said Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell sedan, in an interview with Automotive News. “But we need to keep pushing ourselves toward the ambitious creation of a hydrogen society.”

Japan only has 1,740 fuel cell vehicles milling around the country at this time. The number serves to show how far the plan has yet to go in the next thirteen years, but it also illustrates how willing the country has been to implement hydrogen-powered cars. After all, the entire world has only managed to purchase roughly 4,000 fuel cell vehicles and Japan owns more than its fair share. It has also produced more and, ideally, wants the rest of the world to buy them.

“This is where Japan is different from other countries,” said Hiroshi Katayama, deputy director for advanced energy systems at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). “I think Japan is in the lead.”

It’s a strong lead too. While Germany and Korea have also seriously invested in fuel cell technology, they’re both playing catch up and neither country seems to have Japan’s willingness to reconfigure its infrastructure. Japan might be an isolated case. Europe has been gradually adopting electric vehicles, but growth has slowed in the last few months and numerous EU-based automakers have even sworn off hydrogen as infeasible. Meanwhile, North America has seen continued growth for zero-emission vehicles in general, but the United States may see its regulators roll back emissions standards in the near future. And, with the exception of a few key regions, neither continent seems interested in adopting a hydrogen network over one that favors plug-in charging.

One possible exception could be China. Asia’s most populous country has adopted more stringent pollution policy in recent years and has taken to electric cars better than its peers. It has also been swift to implement a support network for those vehicles. Toyota said last week that it would begin testing the Mirai in China by October to evaluate the market and promote fuel cell technology. The country’s reaction to HEVs could dictate if we continue to see the technology in the future.

[Image: Eneos]

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30 Comments on “Here’s Why Japanese Automakers Keep Sending Hydrogen-powered Cars to North America...”


  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Forget the freakin’ hydrogen, let’s talk about that Celsior filling up.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Well, I mean, who can discount the ultimate wisdom of Japanese technical prognostication (Prius)? This is all about selling the technology to the Chinese.

    Japanese geostrategic wisdom, however, doesn’t have such a sparkling past and perhaps avoids considering the likelihood that China will simply come and take it by various means both overt and covert.

    But, hey, they’re stuck in that neighborhood.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    A friend of mine in Nuclear Power School converted his early-60’s BMC Mini to a fuel-cell powered vehicle as a project during his engineering studies prior to entering the Navy in ’68-’69. It worked out pretty well but, as now, suffered from a lack of locations to refuel. He had previously used the same car as a project to assemble the stock Mini engine without mechanical fasteners using an early experimental epoxy adhesive. That also worked.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Interesting story.

    As for infrastructure, I agree that Japan might be an isolated case.

    Perhaps at the root of it is Japan’s lack of natural resources. As an island nation, they could at least produce H2 from the water around them, even if it’s costly. But you still need resources to accomplish this.

    There is also the matter of government subsidy for these fuel cell efforts. Money can be very motivating.

    I think the FCV thing is a huge boondoggle. The costs and the energy equation are all upside down. Perhaps the only problem they solve vs electric is refueling speed, but that gap is closing.

    • 0 avatar
      Ugliest1

      “Perhaps the only problem they solve vs electric is refueling speed, but that gap is closing.”

      I have no experience with FC vehicles, but from reading anecdotes in articles and comments, I wonder about the refuelling speed proposition. My understanding is the first person in may get a 5-minute refuel, and maybe even the second person, but after that the delivery tank has to repressurize from the storage tank, which means the third (or fourth, or even second?) gets to wait for the pump to be ready, adding a half hour or more to the “quick refuel” experience. Throughput is the key thing here (how many cars can go through a day), along with how expensive the stations are to build, so I’m just not seeing the value.

      Feel free to bring facts to this impression-filled comment.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        I was being generous.

        Edmunds has had not one, but two FCV cars in its long-term fleet. Refueling H2 has been a mixed bag, including inconsistent fillup volumes, high prices, balky filling stations, and poor range.

        The operation of a 5000 psi hydrogen filling port sounds like something I’m not comfortable handing over to the general public.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          “operation of a 5000 psi hydrogen filling port sounds like something I’m not comfortable handing over to the general public.”

          Actually, they have 10,000 psi stations as well. I’m worried about the maintenance of the filling equipment. What happens when a gasket goes in the pump? How safely does the equipment age?

          https://ssl.toyota.com/mirai/Mirai_Fueling.pdf

          In the document, in the “After Refueling” section, it mentions that the fuel hose might be frozen to the vehicle and to wait for the hydrogen to thaw. How long does that take? Hey babe, could I see your lighter for a second?

          The best part is this section:

          CAUTION: It is important to ensure that the
          nozzle lock is properly engaged to the vehicle.
          Failure to do this may result in the nozzle
          coming off when the flow of hydrogen begins.
          This may result in damage to the nozzle,
          station, vehicle, your own person or people
          near the fueling station.

      • 0 avatar
        jaybee2

        I also have no experience with FC cars but I drove an NGV (Honda Civix GX) for almost 7 years and can attest/confirm that multiple refuelings from a single pump can seriously deplete the delivery pressure and hence seriously negatively affect the quality of your “fill”. The problem is greatly compounded when the vehicles in front of you are large commercial/municipal vehicles like buses and refuse trucks – and they invariably lined up to fuel about the time I pulled in (I typically fueled at commercial fueling facilities including the utility service yards) – if there was more than one car or truck in line I would leave and come back at a slower (read, later) time. Not very convenient but necessary to get a good fill esp if I needed to have longer range the next day. Until the H2 or CNG fueling infrastructure gets to be about 30-40% of gasoline infrastructure, I see fueling will be a significant PITA for most drivers…

        My 2 cents.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    The problem with hydrogen is bigger than building a distribution system. Where will the hydrogen come from? There is no good, non-polluting answer to that question. The closest would be electrolysis using electricity from nuclear power plants and the Japanese are understandably gun shy about them. Little effort is being made to develop alternative reactor designs that avoid the dangers inherent in the ones currently in use.

    • 0 avatar
      Jagboi

      Why bother? Electrolysis is net negative energy process (i.e. it takes more energy to break the bonds of water than you can get by burning the resultant H2).

      If you’re generating power from a nuclear plant, just use the electricity instead of converting it to hydrogen and then back to electricity in a fuel cell.

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        My guess is the nuclear lobby in Japan is pushing hydrogen behind the scenes to sway the public opinion to overcome the recent, um, “technical difficulties”.

        • 0 avatar
          derekson

          Nuclear lobby & fossil fuels lobby because natural gas is another source of H2.

          • 0 avatar
            scent tree

            Also the biggest suppliers for batteries are Korean. Japan depending on Korea for anything is a no-go. Hydrogen does make some perverse sense if their goal is to become free of every resource you can’t find domestically in Japan. They don’t have oil, they don’t have bulk battery materials either, but they do have a lot of free access to water and electricity to make as much hydrogen fuel as they want.

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        It would be interesting to see the net energy loss compared to long-distance electrical transmission. One major advantage of hydrogen compared to direct-to-the-grid connection is that it can be stored.

        • 0 avatar
          derekson

          Hydrogen storage is a disadvantage because of the pressure and temperature required, not an advantage. Pressurizing a tank takes energy.

          Hydrogen storage tanks also require venting off hydrogen gas over time as far as I am aware, so you get the same kind of degradation in stored energy as a battery anyway.

        • 0 avatar
          Jagboi

          Hydrogen is not easy to store. Since it’s the smallest molecule it simply flows through many materials, such as steel, so there are significant losses at elevated pressures. It kind of sees steel like window screen.

          Other little wrinkle with H2 is it burns with an invisible flame. If there is an accident you could walk into a fire and not know until you’re burnt.

        • 0 avatar

          Electricity is efficient at every stage, hydrogen not so much. “The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that electricity transmission and distribution losses average about 5% of the electricity that is transmitted and distributed annually in the United States.”

          The huge advantage of plug-in cars compared to hydrogen is every car can store and supply electricity to the grid, and *the utility didn’t pay a dime for all those batteries*. If utilities get a clue they would be salivating over all that short-term demand shifting (just price electricity cheap during some period and immediately some cars will recharge at that time) and peak shaving with Vehicle2Grid (offer decent compensation and some car owners will sell 10% of their battery’s energy back to the grid during peak demand).

          If hydrogen makes sense for seasonal energy storage then electricity generators will do it. But that doesn’t make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles any more appealing. Refilling an EV at home will always be cheaper.

    • 0 avatar
      jaybee2

      @Kendahl

      Actually, electrolysis is cost-prohibitive and slow. Most commercial hydrogen (esp in the quantities that would be needed for transportation use) would come from – wait for it – dissociating natural gas (methane CH4) and condensing/pressurizing to achieve liquid H2 (LH2). So while natural gas already is a viable form of transportation fuel (e.g., municipal fleets such as buses typ run on CNG), the hydrogen economy will impose the extra expense and time to converting the natural gas to H2. Commercial producers in future will need to capture and sequester the carbon atom which adds additional cost…

    • 0 avatar
      TDIandThen....

      This is a good discussion and I’m not very sure about Japan, but in N America we have huge hydrogen potential in what utilities call spinning reserve – basically the time that generation turbines are spinning freely, when demand is low. We also have massive quantities of natural gas as someone has mentioned above. If you need it carbon-free (i do, thank you), think of the massive hydropower plants we have in Canada basically sitting around semi-idle at night (57% of our electricity is hydropower). Then consider that 90+% of our hydropower greenfields are currently not developed. If you’re worried about the embodied Energy (aka EROEI), then we can ship that hydropower down the high-voltage line to a site on the water to make all you like. I believe! I’m not a fuels expert so feel free to correct me.

  • avatar
    Jagboi

    When Ballard in Vancouver built their fuel cell powered bus the fueling problem was easily fixed. The bus barns were across the street from a plant that made soap, and hydrogen was a byproduct of the soap making process. They used to just flare it off, but instead built a pipeline across the street to refuel the buses. I can see it being a problem for those who choose to not live across the street from a soap factory…

  • avatar
    kurkosdr

    Too bad the only economical way to produce hydrogen is from natural gas, a process which pumps out CO2 in the atmosphere. Of course, electric cars get their electricity from burning natural gas and coal in many countries.

    Sure, a few underpopulated and advanced countries like The Netherlands, Finland and the UK will manage to make the green dream come true some time in the future, aka have electric cars powered by green energy, but most other countries will keep using hydrocarbons even after the end of the gasoline and diesel era.

    • 0 avatar
      Jagboi

      Depends on the type of fuel cell. SOFC cells can use both the H2 and CO that comes out of steam reforming natural gas, but for PEM cells the CO is a poison and has to be stripped out of the fuel stream. Naturally SOFC cells are not suitable for use in cars, PEM’s are much better.

      • 0 avatar
        brandloyalty

        I don’t remember that, Jagboi. But I do remember the time the connection from a tanker delivering hydrogen to Ballard’s Burnaby location was found to be leaking. The area for several blocks around was evacuated and the fire chief on site was visibly shaking as he was interviewed on tv.

        • 0 avatar
          Jagboi

          The soap plant and bus barns was in North Van. I used to work with Ballard’s Chief Engineer (after he left Ballard) who designed their first FC powered bus. Very creative guy.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Would you want to be in a building withvan underground parking area full of cars with tanks of hydrogen? What does the insurance industry think of this?

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      10,000 psi. What could possibly go wrong? They talk about the safety systems, but what if someone decided to deliberately defeat them in order to create a bomb that could be parked anywhere? Maybe plug up or disable the emergency tank vent and light the thing on fire? How much explosive force would two cooked 10,000 psi hydrogen tanks produce?

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Google image “honda civic natural gas explosion” to see the pictures of a Honda Civic GX that was engulfed in a fire, which caused the H2 tank to burn and fail in a spectacular manner.

        I’ll take a pure EV any day, any time over something with a 5K or 10K psi storage tank in it.

  • avatar
    pbx

    Whatever became of the much touted Hydrogen Highway between Los Angeles and Vancouver? Back when Schwarzenegger was Governor this was going to be a big deal.

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