The Toyota Mirai next to a hydrogen refuelling pump at a highway service station near London.
The Toyota Mirai next to a hydrogen refuelling pump at a highway service station near London.
Image: Mark Smyth

Hydrogen accounts for 75% of matter in the universe, which is why it matters to the automotive industry.

Until recently it seemed like a small handful of car makers were pursuing the hydrogen fuel cell option in splendid isolation but 2019 has seen a number of other brands taking it more seriously.

It’s also being taken seriously in SA because electric vehicles don’t need platinum, unlike traditional vehicles and, importantly, those with fuel cells.

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Companies such as BMW and Mercedes have announced they are joining Toyota as well as Honda and Hyundai in pursuing fuel cells but the problem is that suppliers, particularly the giant Bosch, say they are working on a solution that does not need platinum. This would put a big dent in the plans of the minerals industry and the department of trade and industry which has plans to make SA a leader in fuel cell technology off the back of platinum availability.

To get some more insight we travelled to Toyota UK to meet up with its alternative fuels specialist Jon Hunt and to get some experience with the company's fuel cell car, the Mirai.

Like electric motors, the fuel cell is not new. It was discovered in the 1700s and in the 1830s was used to create a fuel cell motor. Fossil fuels then took over but hydrogen made a bit of a comeback during the fuel crisis of the 1970s before again being sidelined.

It has remained popular in military operations though, particularly submarines where silent running is very useful.

Then at the turn of the century there was a push towards hydrogen again and in the latter half of the decade we experienced it in both a BMW 7 Series prototype and in the Honda FCX Clarity. BMW never put its hydrogen plans into proper production but Honda continues to make the Clarity.

But why fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) and not battery electric vehicles (BEV)? Hunt explains that there are major challenges with BEVs, including the issues over where the electricity actually comes from, something that varies around the world.

The fuel cell motor in the Toyota Mirai.
The fuel cell motor in the Toyota Mirai.
Image: Mark Smyth

The bigger issue is that of the lithium-ion batteries used in BEVs. There are significant supply constraints and a reliance on mining in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. China is requiring the vast majority of batteries for its own EV market but Hunt says that many of the batteries are “inappropriate” and have been rushed into the market.

Most BEVs also require a large bank of batteries whereas an FCEV only needs one in order to provide a few hundred kilometres of range. Even the batteries themselves are bigger in an EV with a Tesla needing 100kW/h batteries to produce a range over 500km while an FCEV only needs one 1.6kW/h nickel metal hydride battery, the same as the one used in a Prius.

Essentially an FCEV has architecture similar to a hybrid, with an electric motor, a battery and a hydrogen tank. To increase the range you just add another tank or enlarge the existing one, where a BEV would need improvements in battery technology or more batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries have a limited life due to discharge patterns, fast charging and stresses on their chemistry, although Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced that the company is planning to launch new batteries in 2020 that will last for up to 1.6-million kilometres. However, all of these issues are nonexistent in an FCEV and with people in many parts of the world now owning their cars for up to 18 years, that’s a big advantage in the longer term.

Europe has put very strict emissions rules in place, dropping to 95g/km of CO2 in 2020. To hit this target and avoid massive fines, the auto industry has put BEVs at the top of its agenda. Only Toyota, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Volvo and Honda look set to hit the targets by 2021. The question therefore is whether BEVs are only a medium-term solution  to satisfy legislators.

It has often been discussed that hydrogen is a more practical long-term solution given that all that is required to produce it is air and water.

We took Toyota’s Mirai for a drive outside of London and while the drive felt very much like driving a BEV, it was the refuelling that felt more normal than recharging. Granted there aren’t many hydrogen fuel stations around, in fact across the UK there are currently only 11, but we went to one that was at a Shell highway service station where the hydrogen is produced on site using water pumped in and excess electricity from the grid.

We pulled up to the pump, flicked a switch and attached the fire hose-like pipe to the car. The car and the pump then have a little chat to decide how much hydrogen needs to be supplied and in it goes. A couple of minutes later the tank was topped up, we swiped a payment card and were on our way, all very normal to those of us used to topping up an internal combustion engine.

Proximity to a refuelling pump is obviously an issue, but there are already 109 Mirai models in use in the UK, with 21 being driven by London's Metropolitan Police service. They’re not cheap at £66,000 (R1.230m) after a government grant, but that’s still in the ballpark of a Jaguar I-Pace or Tesla Model S.

Is hydrogen the future? In the 2019 KPMG Global Automotive Executive Survey, 79% of respondents said it is with only 9% saying no. There are 33 companies from Anglo American to General Motors and even Airbus that are part of the global Hydrogen Council which plans to push a transition to fuel cells.

The technology can be used not just in cars and submarines, but in boats, homes, industrial plants and trains; in fact, some trains are already being converted to fuel cells around the world.