Last week, Toyota Kirloskar Motor held a demonstration and driving experience of its electrified vehicles in Delhi, including the hydrogen-powered Mirai (it means ‘the future’ in Japanese). Similarly, Hyundai Motor India announced it is evaluating launching fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV, powered by hydrogen), and has started feasibility study in India for the same. But what is an FCEV?
Like stem cells in the field of medicine, fuel cell is a nascent technology in the automotive world. It works like electrolysis (electric current is passed through a substance, and the substance loses or gains an electron), but in reverse. In simple terms, instead of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, these two elements are combined to produce water and electricity. The electricity is then used to drive the car’s motor, and water is the waste. The fuel cell gets oxygen from the air, and hydrogen from a tank (hydrogen is highly reactive and is not available in pure form in natural state). And that’s the challenge: Producing enough pure hydrogen as a fuel, and sustainably.
While many auto companies have developed FCEVs, including Toyota, Hyundai and Honda, Tesla’s Elon Musk has reportedly dismissed these as “mind-bogglingly stupid,” even “fool cells.”
For vehicles, the advantages are immense. For one, FCEVs can go over 500-km on a full tank of hydrogen, and then refilled in 2-3 minutes, just like conventional petrol/diesel cars, and unlike electric cars that need many hours to charge. Two, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, while lithium used in batteries is found mainly in Chile and China, and Chinese companies control the supply chain. Then there are unanswered questions around end-of-life batteries: Where to dispose of these, and how?
Once we are able to produce enough hydrogen sustainably and cost-effectively, as also its supply lines (filling stations, pipelines), we may see the dawn of FCEVs. And we might be near. At the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show in October where Toyota showcased a redesign of the Mirai, the company’s CTO Shigeki Terashi reportedly said that the dung of a single cow can produce enough hydrogen to run the Mirai for 12 months. India may have enough raw material!
But as of now, the dawn of a true hydrogen society appears a distant mirai (the future).