Let’s Embrace Hydrogen-powered Vehicles After EVs
COVID-19 and China
A Toyota hydrogen fuel cell concept vehicle on display at Megaweb Toyota City Showcase in Tokyo. Image credit: Darren Halstead/Unsplash

On the way to the zero-emission future, battery electric vehicles don’t present the only solution to reduce carbon. A hydrogen-powered car is one vehicle that may offer an answer: it uses hydrogen-based fuel, with the only emission being wastewater. 

Automakers have experimented with hydrogen vehicles for many years, looking to convert the most abundant substance in the universe – hydrogen. So far, there have been two types of viable hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Hydrogen internal combustion vehicles (HICEV) are vehicles driven by internal combustion engines that burn hydrogen (usually obtained by decomposing methane or electrolytic water) and oxygen in the air.

A fuel cell vehicle (FCEV) passes hydrogen or a hydrogen-containing substance and oxygen in the air through a fuel cell to generate electricity. The electric motor is used to drive the engine, and the motor is used to propel the vehicle.

Status quo of the fuel cell market

According to E4tech, 2018 was good for fuel cells. Other than for one or two companies, neither units nor MW saw significant growth, but a lot of groundwork was laid, serious players entered, and money came into the sector. 

According to (incomplete) statistics, the total global fuel cell shipments in 2018 reached 75,000 units, an increase of 4,000 units over 2017; the installed capacity will reach 800MW, an increase of 145MW over 2017. About 10% of this is used in cars, compared to only about 3% in 2014.

Regional distribution

The research, development, and commercialization of hydrogen fuel cells and FCEVs is a pattern that has developed rapidly in Japan, the United States and Europe. China continues to excite and confuse, while Korea is re-entering the market with a vengeance.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles

From the perspective of resources and environmental protection, the major developed countries in the world attach great importance to the development of hydrogen energy, and the infrastructure construction plans for hydrogen energy in various countries are proceeding in an orderly manner.

According to statistics from the International New Energy Commission, by 2020, the world's demand for hydrogen energy will reach 10EJ, and demand will increase significantly after 2040. Global demand will reach 80EJ in 2050. The entire industry will be more mature and complete, including power generation, multiple industries use, including energy, transportation, and building power. 

Continuous innovations have been made in the fields of hydrogen production, storage, and hydrogenation. Hydrogen energy and fuel cells have been initially commercialized in some subdivided areas. At the same time, hydrogenation stations are continuously being constructed and developed.

As of the end of 2018, the number of global hydrogen refueling stations reached 369 (with an annual increase of 48 units), of which 273 are open to the public. The remaining hydrogen refueling stations can only provide services to specific users, such as bus and fleet customers.

In the meantime, leading OEMs are actively pushing forward. For example, BMW and Toyota have cooperated in various aspects such as fuel cells, combining BMW's advantages in powertrain and vehicle lightweight design with Toyota's fuel cell advantages.

China is on the way

The core technology continues to improve, but comparing with the international leading team, there's still a big gap.

We should embrace hydrogen-powered vehicles like how we embrace EVs. Said Wan Gang (万钢), a Chinese expert on automobiles, chairman of China Association for Science and Technology. 

National released policies such as China's "13th FYP" National Strategic Emerging Industry Plan, Energy Technology Revolution and Innovation Action Plan (2016-2030), Energy-Saving and New Energy Vehicle Industry Development Plan (2012-2020), "Made in China 2025" have clearly defined the strategic position of the hydrogen energy industry, and have listed the development of hydrogen energy as a key task and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a key support area.

In 2016, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology clearly stated that 5,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles of a scale would be realized by 2020, and the demonstration applications in the field of public service vehicles in specific regions will be completed, and 100 hydrogen refueling stations will be built. Achieve 50,000 applications by 2025 and build 300 hydrogen refueling stations; In 2030, realize the commercialization of millions of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and build 1,000 hydrogen refueling stations.

The 'Hydrogen Economy' in the future?

The hydrogen economy is the use of hydrogen as a low carbon fuel, particularly for heating, hydrogen vehicles, seasonal energy storage and long-distance transport of energy. 

The hydrogen economy is being created as part of the low-carbon economy. In order to phase out fossil fuels and limit global warming, hydrogen is starting to be used as its combustion only releases clean water, and no CO2 to the atmosphere. As of 2019, however, hydrogen is mainly used as an industrial feedstock, primarily for the production of ammonia, methanol and petroleum refining.

In the future, the market's interest in hydrogen will not die down soon, and in practice is more likely to grow. Policy screws will continue to be tightened on air quality, and probably on CO2 emissions.

Japan is leading the game of Hydrogen Economy

In May 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Toyota Motor Corporation in Hokkaido. While China is now desperately developing EVs, and Japanese companies have realized that there are two problems with electric vehicle batteries: one is depreciation, just like mobile phone batteries, after one year, they find it difficult to charge; the other is pollution. Toyota Motor Corporation started to research and development of hydrogen energy technology in 1992 and now has sold 6,000 hydrogen energy vehicles with an annual output of 3,000.

Toyota has a new energy vehicle called "Future", which uses a hydrogen energy system, and this car can be inflated for 3 minutes and could drive 650 kilometers.

Toyota Motor Corporation is not just installing hydrogen energy in cars, but developing it as a mobile power source. After the earthquake, when the tsunami comes, or when there is a power outage due to a typhoon, the car's hydrogen energy can be connected to the home's power supply, ensuring a family's normal power supply for a week. The Japanese government has now announced that it will enter the hydrogen energy society. Every family only needs to install a small hydrogen energy reaction device, and it no longer needs the power company to provide grid power.

According to E4tech, 2020 has been on the radar for some time as an important target year – the Tokyo 'Hydrogen Olympics', manufacturing ramp-up by Toyota and Honda, vehicle launch from several other OEMs, and a significantly increased Chinese presence. But it does look like the groundwork done up till now will make 2019 an interesting year for fuel cells too – in a very positive way.

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