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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Why Are Shell And Toyota Backing Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?

Toyota Mirai

Royal Dutch Shell sees that facing a lower-carbon transport future will need a “mosaic of fuels and engines,” but the energy conglomerate is leaning toward hydrogen as the alternative fuel of choice.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are classified globally as zero emission vehicles, and are seeing a wave of policy support in North America, Europe, and Asia. The water vapor emissions are fascinating to many. Shell sees a distinct place for itself in supporting the vehicles and leading development of the fueling infrastructure needed for mass adoption.

However, there are several hurdles needing to be cleared for fuel cell vehicle vehicles and the “hydrogen highway” to become economically viable.

In January, Shell became part of a global hydrogen council that included Toyota, Total SA, Liquide SA, and Linde AG. The companies will be investing about $10.7 billion in hydrogen products over the next five years.

Shell is investing significantly in hydrogen fueling stations in Europe and the U.S. The company has established four hydrogen stations in Germany, one in London’s Heathrow Airport, and two in California. Last month, Shell and Toyota announced they’ll be partnering to add seven more in California.

California is leading the way in fuel cell vehicle sales and hydrogen stations through its zero emission vehicle and greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Companies are partnering with government agencies for funding and support, and the state would like to see 100 retail hydrogen stations in place by 2024.

Shell would like to be well positioned to deal with emissions policies and shifting demand for oil. While being interviewed last November, Shell CFO Simon Henry said that demand is expected to peak in about five years. Related: Energy Market Deregulation: Be Careful What You Wish For

One of the key challenges for hydrogen transport is that the numbers of fuel cell vehicles sold and out on roads is quite small. HybridCars.com reported that 1,074 fuel cell vehicles were sold in the U.S. during 2016, led by the Toyota Mirai. That was nearly a ten-fold increase in U.S. sales over 2015, but it’s only a tiny fraction of overall new vehicle sales in the country.

Europe has been investing in its “hydrogen highway” of fueling stations in Germany, the UK, France, and Scandinavia, but its fuel vehicle sales are well behind the U.S. Japan and South Korea are in a similar position with governments pushing for support, but fuel cell vehicle sales in an early stage.

Other industries are seeing fuel cell gains, including industrial forklifts, transit buses, and energy storage. Fuel cell cars and the hydrogen fueling infrastructure are still in an embryonic phase.

Another challenge that Shell and its hydrogen colleagues are facing is public perception over the potential danger when using hydrogen as a fuel. These perceptions aren’t grounded in any real scientific evidence, but they do need to be addressed in public education and marketing campaigns for the vehicles and transport fuel. Related: Tech Miracle In U.S. Shale Is A Media Myth

The fear factor can be traced back to the Hindenburg disaster and the H-bombs of the 1950s. These topics will typically come up during discussions over hydrogen’s potential as a transportation fuel.

The Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937, that took 36 lives, was immortalized on the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. During the 1950s, images of mushroom clouds from hydrogen bomb tests, such as Bikini Atoll, became a popular icon that was typically used later in science fiction movies.

Fuel cells and hydrogen have been used safely for several years, with the most recognized example coming from the U.S. space program.

The Toyota Mirai’s storage tank is quite different than what had been used in the Hindenburg. Citing that disaster isn’t fair or accurate, says Jon Hunt, who is in charge of commercialization of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for Toyota GB Plc.

“The fire and explosion at Hindenburg was nothing to do with hydrogen, and that is the mindset you’ve got to change with people,” Hunt said. In the disaster, “there were a number of things, including materials used and operational practice that would be totally mitigated by normal good practice now.”

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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  • wally on March 25 2017 said:
    Natural gas is used to make hydrogen, with 80% efficiency. That's why they're interested hydrogen fuel cell tech.

    Hydrogen is difficult to work with, so I doubt this will go anywhere.
  • Kafantaris on March 26 2017 said:
    “Even if you have all-battery EVs, we have to consider very carefully the lifetime of the batteries. When does the degradation start by excessive charging and recharging, and what is the benefit for the customer?
    For Honda, both paths are feasible and, with hydrogen, we have developed a very clever electrolyzer which does not need a compressor any more. We do this via hydrodifferential pressure that electrolyzes with our fuel-cell stack.” -- Thomas Brachmann
  • Alan Yurychuk on March 26 2017 said:
    The limits of battery power density mean that battery powered ships, planes, trains and trucks may never be possible. Hydrogen fuel cells are a viable zero emission alternative. This only works if excess renewable energy is used to make hydrogen instead of natural gas.
  • P.R. on March 27 2017 said:
    Completely green hydrogen that is produced by water hydrolysis using wind or solar is the most ineficcient way to store energy. Of original energy produced at solar plant only 30% percent reaches hydrogen car wheels. It is because of hydrolysis losses, hydrogen storage (compression) losses, and fuelcell losses. Hydrolysis losses can be reduced, if hydrogen is made of natural gas. But that is no way green energy, as carbon from methane is converted into CO2 while producing hydrogen. And then big question comes, what for do we need all that fancy and expensive machinery when we could burn methane directly in traditional Internal Combustion Engine having the same total energy efficiency with hydrogen.

    Regarding that clever electrolyzer, compression comes with increased energy consumption at higher pressures. Pressure is a type of energy and according to laws of physics, we need input energy in order to increase pressure. Only plus is that it probably deletes some machinery.
  • Aleksandr Vasilenko on April 12 2017 said:
    Full electric cars are better, but they are really not convenient. The very best we have so far is the Tesla Supercharger, which can give you 200 miles of charge in 30 minutes. That is great, but also really slow. And Tesla engineers are not thinking they can get it in the 5-15 minute range any time soon.

    Whereas a Hydrogen Fuel cell car can be FULL fueled up, 400-600 miles, in around five minutes. Plus they have a longer range than batteries. So with a full electric car you must charge much more often, and it will take you longer.

    And finally if you wish to charge anywhere other than a Supercharger station, well, now you have to wait HOURS.

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