~ Auto Buzz ~: The ABC of hydrogen

Monday, 26 June 2017

The ABC of hydrogen


Fuel cell cars.

The Toyota Mirai.

You may have heard about it – but how much do you know?

Do the test. Impress your friends in the pub with below 26 buzzwords. And become a true hydrogen genius.

*A*ll around us
Remember the periodic table from chemistry class? Hydrogen (H) is on the far left, top row. It is the most common atom to be found in the universe. You’ll find it in water, H20, for example. But as in water, H bonds to other chemical elements. That means we need ways to isolate it if we want to produce pure H2 hydrogen fuel.


Fuel cell vehicles have batteries. A nickel-metal hydride battery to be precise. The battery is very useful as it stores the energy that is released when you decelerate or brake. That energy is then used to boost the performance of your car every time you accelerate. At lower speeds, when parking for example, the car runs on the battery alone. It is the same principle that applies to all Toyota hybrid cars.

*C*onventional car

Hydrogen-powered cars are no oddities. They are available on the market today. In fact, sales of Toyota’s fuel cell car, called Mirai (Japanese for ‘Future’), started back in December 2014. The Toyota Mirai has an extremely advanced powertrain, using a new type of fuel. Still, the Mirai is a regular mid-size, four-door sedan that is every bit as practical, safe and easy to drive as a conventionally powered family car. In the end, you would almost forget you have to put hydrogen in it…

*D*isaster (support)

It’s comforting to know that in the event of a natural disaster that affects energy supply networks, a fuel cell car can come to the rescue. Especially in regions that are typically affected by natural disasters, like earthquake struck Japan. The car’s fuel cell stack can be used to supply energy to power home essentials for up to a week in an emergency. Think of it as having an electric generator enclosed in your garage when you have six feet of snow and 30° below outside …and zero emissions to worry about on the inside.


With all the current attention on electric vehicles, you could almost forget that the fuel cell car is an … electric vehicle. The wheels are driven by the electricity generated by the fuel cell stack. The only difference with a battery powered electric vehicle (BEV) is that the electricity is generated inside the vehicle instead of being taken from outside the vehicle. How? See F(uel cell stack).

*F*uel cell stack

The fuel cell stack is at the heart of the car. It’s where the magic happens. In goes the hydrogen and oxygen, out comes the electricity to power the wheels (with only water vapour at the tailpipe as an emission).

For the more scientifically inclined: A fuel cell converts the energy stored in the hydrogen to electricity by using an electrolyte, which separates the hydrogen’s protons and electrons to create a stream of electrons (electricity). The fuel cell’s electrochemical process creates water and heat as by-products rather than greenhouse gases.

Hungry for more information? Look at this video and see the magic happening before your eyes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSxPkyZOU7E

*G*reen hydrogen

The environment wins when we create electricity from renewables such as solar, wind and hydropower instead of fossil fuels. We all know that. However, what needs to be very carefully monitored is the balance between demand and supply. Sunny days generate a lot of electricity at a time when there might not be an immediate demand for it. This causes peaks and imbalances in the electricity grid.

Hydrogen is a very promising energy carrier as it can store this electricity surplus that is not immediately used. This type of hydrogen produced from renewables is called green hydrogen. Ideally, we should move to 100% green hydrogen in the future.

*H* or H2?

Bear with us; this gets a bit more technical. Hydrogen (H) is the simplest and most common atom known to exist. But as H is an element that can’t exist by itself, it will always combine with another element in order to be stable. Water (H20) is such an example. So when we need H2 to fuel the car, we need to combine 2 hydrogen elements. Read P(roduction) to see how that happens.

*I*ntellectual property (patents)

In 2015, Toyota did something unprecedented. Rather than keeping our 20-year investment and built up know-how in-house, we announced that we would share ALL of our 5,680 Hydrogen-fuel-cell-related global patents with interested parties. Royalty-free.

Approximately 1,970 licenses are related to the fuel cell stack, about 290 to the high-pressure hydrogen tank and about 3,350 to the fuel cell system control technology.


Japan has the largest number of hydrogen stations in operation in one single country. The island currently has around 100 stations, with many more planned in the future. Why is Japan making large investments in a future hydrogen society? The country pays a high cost to import most of its energy and is eager to become more self-reliant. And the need to explore alternative energy sources has accelerated since the Fukushima incident.


Toyota Mirai’s fuel cell stack has a world-leading volume power density of 3.1kW/L. This figure is the result of dividing 113 kW (the energy that the fuel cell stack produces) by 36.5 litres (the volume of the stack). Is that any good? Well, it’s an indicator about the size of the fuel cell stack. We have managed to come up with a more compact, lighter fuel cell stack with improved performance. And one that can easily be mounted underneath the floor of a sedan, thanks to its reduced size.


Did you know hydrogen can be produced from practically anything – even bullsh*t? No kidding. Watch this YouTube movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pTluy9KpYU. The process of splitting water (H2O) into its atomic components, hydrogen and oxygen, is called ‘Electrolysis’ -> see P(roduction).


The Mirai is the name of Toyota’s fuel cell vehicle. It means ‘Future’ in Japanese. Fuel cell cars emit zero emissions when driving, so we believe that these cars are a promising technology (not only for cars) for the future. In order for these cars to become mainstream – just like Toyota’s hybrid vehicles – they have to be made affordable. Fuel cell system costs have decreased by 95%, compared to the Mirai’s predecessor; the 2008 FCHV-adv. Components are smaller, lighter, more efficient and cheaper to produce in volume. The system also shares many common parts with our hybrid models, including the electric motor. This saves cost and increases reliability.

*N*etwork in Europe

It is true that we are in the early stages of developing a network for making, distributing and selling hydrogen fuel. However, this network is growing every day. When the Mirai was launched in Europe in 2015, 40 refuelling stations were available in European countries. By 2020, there will be an estimated 200 stations and by 2025, this number will be closer to 1000. As well as securing a good number of sites, it is important that these are strategically located, serving major cities and the principal routes that link them.


How do the Olympic Games relate to hydrogen? You may or may not know that in 2020 the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan. As usual, this four-yearly global sports event is expected to attract millions of fans that will come to cheer on their national teams. To move from one place to another they will be needing transportation. In Tokyo, Toyota intends to facilitate these journeys by showcasing its vision of a complete hydrogen society.

(hydrogen) *P*roduction

Hydrogen fuel can be obtained from many different sources that are in plentiful supply. In Europe, most hydrogen is currently produced from steam methane reforming (which uses natural gas as the source material) or from electrolysis (that produces hydrogen out of water). It is already possible to use renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydro power for the electrolysis process.

This is key to ensure the “well to wheel” carbon performance of hydrogen is excellent. All hydrogen production in Denmark for example, is from renewable sources. Germany and other countries are expected to adopt this “green” type of hydrogen production in the coming years.

*Q*DR (Quality, Durability and Reliability)

Toyota is famous for its quality. The same goes for the Mirai. The engineers have spared no effort and put the fuel cell car through a challenging 200,000km endurance test. 14 engineers drove the Mirai for 254 days, 16 hours/day on city streets, motorways and country roads. The car had to weather temperatures going from 37 to minus 20 degrees Celsius, with no report of start-up problems. Conclusion? There were no mechanical breakdowns. The car underwent normal maintenance and operated with 100% reliability. Only the brake discs were replaced once and brake pads three times.

*R*efuelling & *R*ange

Refuelling is similar to conventional cars. It takes between three and five minutes. It is clearly one of the benefits of choosing a fuel cell vehicle. Range: It will go as far as a similar size petrol car on a full tank of hydrogen.

(hydrogen) *S*ociety

We believe that there are great environmental and social benefits to be secured from building a future society based on using CO2-free hydrogen and renewable energy sources. This forms an important part of our long-term Environmental Challenge 2050 and our desire to create true harmony between society and nature.

Hydrogen is a clean, efficient means of producing electricity that is not vulnerable to fluctuations in supply. As well as creating no CO2 emissions when used, hydrogen fuel also has a higher energy density than batteries and is easy to transport and store. It can be used not only for powering vehicles (private cars, buses, trucks, taxis, forklifts, trains and even planes) but homes and factories as well.


Here is a fact: a single company can never be successful in building the future hydrogen society on its own. That is why Toyota joins cross-industry consortiums to promote actively the development and commercialization of the hydrogen and fuel cell sectors. Members are key stakeholders, such as policy makers, business and hydrogen players, international agencies and society as a whole.

The 13 founding members of the ‘Hydrogen Council’ are leading energy, transport and industry companies determined to position hydrogen among the key solutions of the energy transition.

b*U*s, tr*U*cks & other (heavy d*U*ty) units

Let us not mislead you into thinking that hydrogen is only being used as a fuel in passenger cars. In fact, more than 50 million tons of hydrogen are being used globally in industrial applications on a yearly basis. Thus, it is well established. Looking at the auto industry, Toyota is experimenting with trucks, buses and forklifts.

In Los Angeles we’re testing a fuel cell heavy-duty truck to move cargo around the port. Forklifts are another application that can fully rely on hydrogen: Toyota is testing a few units at a plant in Japan, and aims to deploy around 180 units by 2020. And more than hundred Toyota fuel cell buses will take you around the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.


H2 is the lightest substance in the universe. Scientists call it ‘highly volatile’ (contrary to what many people think this doesn’t mean it is dangerous). In fact, the volatile characteristic of H2 makes it very safe. As it is lighter than air, hydrogen rises and dissipates very rapidly, up and away from any ignition source. Unlike traditional gases and their vapours, hydrogen does not collect under and around a vehicle in case of a leak due to a crash for example.

With regards to the hydrogen tank in the car, take a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVeagFmmwA0 What do you see? Exactly. We fired bullets at the tank in an attempt to try to pierce it on purpose, but nothing happened. Thanks to the carbon fibre reinforced plastic material used, the hydrogen tank’s structure remains intact. The gas merely escapes through the hole and quickly and harmlessly disperses into the atmosphere.

*W*orld Green Car of the Year 2016

We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back too much, but in all fairness we must admit that we feel honoured when others – especially media – recognize our efforts by declaring the Toyota Mirai ‘2016 World Green Car of the Year’. At the New York International Auto Show, a jury of 73 international automotive journalists from 23 countries chose the Toyota Mirai from an initial entry list of eight new vehicles from all over the world.

OK, let’s get back to work now. To produce even more ‘ever better cars’.


NOx is the generic term for ‘nitrogen oxides’, like nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). It’s one of the harmful emissions coming from the combustion of conventional fuels in a car engine. NOx contributes to the formation of smog and acid rain. Large cities around the world are implementing measures to ban emissions such as NOx from city centres to fight worsening air pollution.

If you’re driving a fuel cell vehicle, such as Toyota’s Mirai, you do not have to worry about being banned from city centre driving. The car does not emit NOx nor any other harmful emissions. You will only leave a trail of water vapour coming from the car’s tailpipe 😉

wh*Y* hydrogen?

We are often asked why Toyota is investing in fuel cell cars rather than in electric cars? We don’t think one is better than the other. And we are investing in both. We feel battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are complementary as they serve different mobility needs from the customer.

BEVs are better suited for short distances in an urban environment. Downtime is still an issue due to long charging times – even with a supercharger it takes 20 minutes or more. So is range anxiety. With FCEVs fuelling only takes 3 to 5 minutes and you can cover long distances, on a par with a conventional petrol car.

*Z*ero emissions

Could we end on a more positive note? Fuel cell electric vehicles are fully zero emission cars when driving.

Full stop.

(For the sake of completeness, you may want to know that water vapour is coming out of the tailpipe. Around 70ml/km if you really want to know. And yes, the water is so pure you could drink it – we wouldn’t recommend it though as the water has been running through the car’s pipes after all …However, some do…).


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