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Why Are Shell And Toyota Backing Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?

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.

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.

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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