Japan started selling the world's first household hydrogen fuel cell this year, and stands on the verge of selling fuel-cell vehicles. But there are still difficult challenges involving the manufacturing, storing and transporting of hydrogen. For these reasons, some experts say the advent of the hydrogen economy might be a pipedream.
Fossil fuels, which have been supporting modern civilization for over 100 years, contain two fatal flaws: they are not sustainable and they cause environmental pollution. In contrast, hydrogen can be manufactured even from water, and is clean with no harmful emissions.
"When the oil runs dry, it is necessary to substitute something different. Hydrogen is a leading candidate for alternative energy," said Professor Kazunari Sasaki, director of the International Research Center for Hydrogen Energy at Kyushu University in southern Japan.
Japan, with energy self-sufficiency of only 4 percent, has been forced to pursue diversified energy sources. It has been consistently developing fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, and is now in the forefront of this field.
Replacing oil with hydrogen all at once is unrealistic, Sasaki says. Therefore, he suggests, “We should increase the proportion of using hydrogen technology little by little in fields where there are benefits. Those are at home and in vehicles."
Japan imports most of its oil from the Middle East, and 40 percent of this is used in vehicles. If even a small part of the nation’s cars switch to hydrogen, it would be significant.
Only a handful of automakers are currently leasing fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs, called the ultimate eco-cars because of their zero emissions, by way of experiment. These include Japan’s three major automakers – Toyota, Nissan and Honda – the German auto giant Daimler, and the U.S. auto giant General Motors. Less than 100 fuel-cell vehicles are on the road in Japan, and a few hundred in the world.
One obstacle is the high price of such cars. An FCV is currently valued at around US$1.1 million. Toyota leases its FCV for US$9,400 a month, or US$110,000 a year.
In 2015 Toyota and Daimler are expected to introduce mass production of FCVs, after 20 years of research and development. They will have to substantially reduce the price, however.
"By the time FCVs are commercially available in 2015 they will be cheaper than a Rolls-Royce, but it will be difficult to price them down to the level of a Corolla,” said Kenichiro Ota, a professor at Yokohama National University. A Rolls-Royce costs around US$550,000 and a Corolla $22,000.
The FCVs themselves seem to meet all expectations, apart from cost. At the Tokyo Motor Show in Chiba City east of Tokyo early this month, the author test-drove Toyota's latest fuel-cell vehicle, the FCHV-adv, believed to be the world's most advanced model. It runs 515 miles on a full 156-liter high-pressure hydrogen tank. The car’s motor is the same as that of an electric vehicle, with no unpleasant engine sounds and almost no vibration, and the ride was comfortable.
According to Shogo Saegusa, a senior researcher at the Japan Automobile Research Institute, FCVs face five key challenges: low efficiency, endurance reliability, cold-start durability, travel range and high cost.
However, Japan's three auto manufacturers have already extended the travel range of their FCVs to a level similar to that of gasoline vehicles. Toyota has achieved 515 miles, Honda’s FCX Clarity has reached 385 miles, and Nissan’s X-TRAIL FCV is up to 310 miles.
Hydrogen must be artificially produced as it does not exist in isolation in nature. This means it is a secondary energy like electricity, not a primary energy like fossil fuels.
Since hydrogen is a gas at room temperature, it must be reduced to minus 487 degrees Fahrenheit to liquidize it, or kept under pressure to retain it as a gas. In short, a great deal of energy is required at each stage of manufacturing, storing and transporting hydrogen. After several studies, car manufacturers adopted the high-pressure hydrogen tank for FCVs.
Although the cost of compression is less than that of manufacturing liquefied hydrogen, it still requires considerable energy and technology. Naturally, expanding the infrastructure of hydrogen stations is also a challenge in making the vehicles popular. Currently, Japan has only 14 stations in major cities capable of pumping compressed hydrogen into vehicle tanks.
Energy supplies are secure, however, as hydrogen can be made not only from natural gas or kerosene but also from water or seawater. That is the one reason Japan, in trying to build a society without fossil fuels, has been pushing ahead with hydrogen.