“Please don’t point your camera in that direction,” the official said. Oh no, never, I responded in a flurry, I’m just checking a setting, no worries, I wasn’t going to take any pictures of that part of the harbour, particularly that warship over there. Overhead, a Huey helicopter clattered in what seemed like particularly threatening circles, which was probably just my overactive imagination at work.
We were standing at the water’s edge in Japan’s big port city, Yokohama. A chain link fence separated us from two businesslike-looking grey vessels tied up at a quayside in a zone where the US flag flaps smartly in the brisk sea breeze. Speaking of which, on our side of the fence is Hama Wing, a small patch of shore dominated by a single wind turbine installation that’s a brave attempt at a sustainable way of looking at a hydrogen supply chain. Brave in the sense that wind power has not yet made significant inroads into the country’s energy mix. But it’s seen as providing added impetus to a part of the energy mix that is gaining more and more attention: hydrogen.
Japan’s shortage of natural resources – specifically, the fossil-fuel kind – makes hydrogen a more pressing option there than in oil-rich areas. But that’s not to say the rest of the world shouldn’t be paying attention.
Fuel cell vehicles don’t actually burn hydrogen; they combine it with oxygen to produce electricity. Essentially, hydrogen passes through a flow field plate to an anode. Cells are grouped in a stack (the stack of Toyota’s Mirai FCV has 370 of those cells) to produce sufficient electricity to drive a motor.
By late 2017, approaching 3 000 Mirais had been sold, mostly in Japan (about half the total) and the US. Other manufacturers have developed own hydrogen-powered vehicles – Honda with the Clarity and Hyundai with the ix35 FCEV. However, much of the initial interest shown in other quarters – Europe, for instance – has waned and battery power has increasingly gained attention.
I drove the Mirai (Japanese for “the future”) FCV on the test track at Megaweb in Tokyo. (This is not one of those complexes with high-speed ovals and handling tracks; it’s more a couple of kilometres of urban asphalt to give visitors to this Toyota-themed facility the opportunity to experience a test drive, on an actual albeit untrafficked road, in controlled circumstances.
The edgy styling is a subject for debate and, to these eyes, it’s a thing of practicality more than great beauty. Its distinctive gaping grille and other openings are meant to let in cooling air and oxygen for the fuel cell system.
In normal driving, dynamically, the Mirai feels just like the E-cars I have driven: quiet, refined, with a smooth and eager pullaway. Just like a typical Toyota. It’s only when the Megawab guide alongside urges you to put your foot down hard from the mid-drive standing start that you realise: hey, this thing really shifts.
At the moment, the numbers of FCVs sold are both small enough to suggest that it’s a very niche-y product, and big enough to hint at a potential for bigger sales success. Putting aside concerns about fuel storage and safety, which seem these days to have been thoroughly addressed, the big IF really is fuelling infrastructure. Toyota has in any case proven its application of the technology works, using hydrogen-fuelled forklifts. Why forklifts as guinea pigs for fuel cells? Simple. The company has lots of business units, many of which use forklifts.
At Hama Wing, energy generated by the wind drives the hydrogen plant that’s based on an urban-friendly process and at 12 per cent conversion rate is relatively inefficient, we were told. “We have to be able to use urban energy methods,” our guide said. “We also wanted an urban project… to get more media attention… it is easier to get people there.” The site itself was built by the city 10 years ago and the project has been done in co-operation with the country’s ministry of environment.
To cater for those times when the wind doesn’t blow or isn’t strong enough, Toyota has provided energy storage – in the form of obsolete hybrid-vehicle batteries. Specifically, a system designed around 180 end-of-life Prius batteries with a total output of 150 kWh. According to Toyota officials present during our visit, there’s plenty of capacity and recharge cycles still in the batteries although they may have reached the end of their design lives. As it’s relatively early days in the project, they can’t say just how much kick these batteries retain, but they do monitor them continually to note any drop-off. Besides maintaining the system output, this also helps in making decisions about the practical longevity of the hybrid battery packs and their possible alternative uses after they have reached their end-of-life stage.
Before scrapping the car, the company collects the batteries and delivers them to a central point, where good ones are cherry-picked. “We have already established a network of recycling battery that way,” a Toyota official explained.
Eventually, once pronounced thoroughly deceased, the scrap battery will be put to use for making batteries once again.
This sustainable approach forms part of the company’s drive to lower the carbon footprint of the installation. “We are (also) selling the batteries to our dealers as a power storage source,” an official said.
The company isn’t pinning all its hopes on hydrogen, of course. Its exhibits at the recently completed Tokyo motor show also highlighted that the ongoing quest to improve the internal combustion engine will have the biggest impact. However, it’s clear that in the short to medium term a mix of combustion engines, hybrid and fuel cell, depending on the market, will be the norm.