Making way for hydrogen-run vehicles
If you are still wondering whether vehicles will run commercially on hydrogen anytime soon, you needn’t. Cars already run on hydrogen-fuel cells, albeit in small numbers. Buses and trucks are next in line.
Consider the example of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., which unveiled “Project Portal”, a hydrogen fuel cell system designed for heavy-duty truck use, on 19 April. The idea was to showcase its effort to broaden the application of zero-emission fuel-cell technology that can serve a range of industries.
Project Portal is a fully functional heavy-duty truck with the power and torque capacity to conduct port drayage operations (transportation of goods over a short distance) while emitting nothing but water vapour. Heavy-duty vehicles make up a significant percentage of the annual emissions output at the Port of Los Angeles, and the Portal feasibility study, according to Toyota, is aimed at providing another path to further reduce emissions.
The concept truck generates more than 670 horsepower and 1,325 pound feet of torque (force that causes rotation) from two Mirai (Toyota Mirai) fuel-cell stacks and a 12 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery. The concept truck, which can take a weight of around 36,300kg, is estimated to drive more than 200 miles per fill “under normal drayage operation”.
Closer home, Tata Motors Ltd and the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) said almost a decade back that they were partnering to make hydrogen-fuelled buses. The Starbus fuel-cell bus was first unveiled at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Isro’s facility in Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu, in 2013. And this year, on 25 January, Tata Motors showcased the country’s first fuel-cell bus for intercity commutes in Pune.
As for cars that run on hydrogen, there were three hydrogen cars publicly available in select markets in 2016—the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai ix35 FCEV and Honda Clarity. Today, other vehicle manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors have hydrogen-fuelled cars in the works. Toyota’s Mirai (Japanese for “future”) was the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to be sold commercially. It was unveiled at the November 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show. Toyota aims to sell 30,000 Mirai a year worldwide by 2020, while banking on huge sales in its home nation of Japan.
Hydrogen is the lightest element but it has the highest energy content per unit weight of all fuels. Its energy density is three times greater than that of petrol. Hydrogen, seldom found on its own in nature, typically combines with oxygen and carbon. Hydrogen can be extracted from virtually any hydrogen-containing compound, including both renewable and non-renewable resources. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Fuel-cell vehicles use a completely different propulsion system from conventional vehicles that can be two-three times more efficient.
We do not, however, have enough hydrogen fuelling stations. Currently, there a little over 100 public hydrogen refuelling stations globally. According to a 6 March report published by Information Trends, however, close to 5,000 fuelling stations will be deployed globally by 2032. Deployment activity, the report notes, is particularly brisk in Asia, where Japan and Korea are strong proponents of the hydrogen economy. In Europe, Denmark was the first country to deploy a nationwide hydrogen fuelling infrastructure, the report said, but the real charge is being led by Germany, which will be establishing 400 hydrogen fuelling stations over the next six years.
Another issue is that while electric vehicle (EV) charging stations can be installed at home too and are relatively inexpensive, costing between $200 (around Rs12,890) and $1,500 on average, a hydrogen refuelling station can cost $2-3 million. On the flip side, fuel-cell-driven cars can be charged as fast as petrol- and diesel-run vehicles, as opposed to the hours spent on charging electric vehicles.
Production of Global Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) is expected to be more than 70,000 vehicles annually by 2027, as more automotive OEMs bring FCEVs to market, according to a 4 May 2016 FCEV report from IHS Automotive, part of IHS, Inc.
Cutting Edge is a monthly column that explores the melding of science and technology.