The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution, Part 1

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

Announced in early October with little fanfare, the United States Department of Energy declared that its Fuel Cell Technologies Office would team up with its Japanese counterpart to accelerate hydrogen and fuel cell research. They plan to collect and share early stage Research and Development on the safety of hydrogen extraction, fuel cell, and fueling station development. This kind of partnership brings hydrogen fuel up a notch and could even ramp up the use of hydrogen as a fuel source—something that almost has been a joke for at least 30 years.

So, why partner with Japan and why now?

As one of the worldwide leaders in hydrogen infrastructure, Japan wants its country to become less dependent on nuclear and gas based fuels. In 2014, the country created a blueprint to do this called the Hydrogen Society Roadmap. Among other things, by 2020, Japan wants to increase the number of fuel-cell vehicles on the roads to 40,000. Currently, there are only 2,200 and Bloomberg estimates that the country will only achieve only 60 percent of its target by then. Japan currently hosts only 91 hydrogen charging stations and by 2020 hopes to reach 160 in total.

Also, Japanese automakers, Toyota and Honda, are bullish on hydrogen fueled cars of the future and work closely with the government on the Hydrogen Society.

Toyota envisions a zero emission future and has funded major research and development projects. Projects go from a better way to extract hydrogen (wind-powered water splitting) to working with Japan’s 7-11 stores by integrating systems for shipping and logistics using hydrogen fuel.

This past week, Toyota announced they have developed a Fine-Comfort-Ride concept car that will be unveiled at the upcoming Tokyo Auto Show. The car will be range capable of 1000 KM or 621 miles on a single tank of the universe’s most abundant element. This is 50 percent more driving range than its current hydrogen-powered sedan.

Earlier this month, Toyota announced the company will begin testing in October, a hydrogen fueled truck hauling short range in California. The truck will be moving goods from select terminals at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby warehouses and rail yards.

Toyota also plans to use 100 of their hydrogen concept buses called Sora in Tokyo before and during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

On the other hand, Honda has partnered with General Motors to create a U.S.-based Fuel Cell System Manufacturing Plant. Both companies plan to combine forces to create propulsion systems that will be used for vehicles from both companies. In a May interview with Trucks.com, GM’s global head of fuel cell development Charles Freese said about the Honda partnership:

“GM is No.1 with intellectual property in the fuel cell space, Honda is No. 2. Together we’ve got an overwhelmingly strong patent and intellectual property portfolio. GM was already on Generation 2 of its fuel cell, Honda was tooling up for its Gen 1 system (with the Honda Clarity fuel cell sedan that went on sale in California earlier this year) and has some practical launch experience that was very advantageous. Couple that with GM’s experience and it was just a case of 1 + 1 = 5. We both threw in all of our intellectual property; we fully integrated the development teams. It’s a co-development program. Both companies working as one.”

For decades, GM has been a pioneer in hydrogen fuel cell technology and this past week unveiled a multi-use fuel cell vehicle platform. They hope to leverage this platform to reduce GM’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of this news seems to be under the media radar because electric cars seem to be taking up the space for alternatively fueled vehicles. Hydrogen though might have a place in the electro-car universe which could be quite exciting for car owners of the future.

In part 2, of this series on The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution, I will give insight into how other companies plan to use hydrogen and how fuel cells might bring more range to electric vehicles.

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