What furthered my interest in hydrogen was a presentation in 1989 by Joachim Gretz, the head of the EU’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, about the then running Quebec project. I had already been interested in the technology many years prior to that event: I can still remember clearly how the board chair of German Shell, Johannes Welbergen, told me during a conversation that H2 was the future for which we still had to wait for a long time to come. Rudolf von Bennigsen-Foerder, the then board chair of VEBA, expressed the same sentiment during his presentation before the Christian Democratic Union’s economic council, whose president I was at that time.
As more details emerged during a Rotary presentation, I suggested to our friend – the then senator Hansjörg Sinn – that we establish a non-profit association to speed up the arrival of this future. We founded the Association for the Promotion of Hydrogen in the Energy Industry, with professor Sinn as chair and me as secretary. I later assumed the role of chair myself, succeeding Mr. Fürwentsches and Mr. Gretz as the head of the association.
Organizations which backed us from the start were Airbus as well as Hamburger Hochbahn and former HEW, or what is today Vattenfall. The then mayor of Hamburg, Henning Voscherau, was one of the association‘s founding members. The Hamburg Senate was also committed to our goals by having Hochbahn procure fuel cell buses. Today, the state-owned business serves as a prime example of renewable energy use: From 2020 on, Hochbahn will no longer buy any diesel buses. Hochbahn‘s subsidiary hySolutions bundles all H2 expertise and is one of the business leaders in the field in Germany. Günter Elste deserves the highest gratitude and admiration for his accomplishment as former president of Hochbahn.
Over the past 27 years, we have initiated various campaigns – some of our efforts invited derision, but we never wavered from our course. The ecological benefits do jump to mind first, but personally, I have always considered the economic and geopolitical aspects to be more important, even now. My article in the International New York Times was entitled: Defence by wind and solar through hydrogen.
The very first Mirai
On Nov. 10, 2015, I was the first private customer in Germany to be able to drive a mass-produced hydrogen car with a fuel cell, the Mirai by Toyota. Mirai is Japanese and means “future.” Production figures are still small, but at least it’s no longer a prototype. Nevertheless, we have to remember that the development for this type of engine is still in its infancy, just as gas engine advances were 100 years ago. This may help to imagine what potential for fuel cell development lies ahead of us over the coming years.
Sometimes, I‘m asked: How does the fuel cell system work? There are two tanks underneath the back seats. They can hold up to five kilograms of gaseous hydrogen at 700 bar. Refilling the tank takes three minutes (for around 4 to 5 kg) in Hamburg’s HafenCity. The fuel cell produces power through a chemical process with the help of oxygen. The generated electricity is fed directly to the electric engine at each of the two front wheels. This means there is no longer a transmission shaft that is powered by the engine. The result is rapid acceleration, no sound, no smell, no emissions – only H2O dripping from the exhaust.
You refill a Mirai almost in the same way as you would refuel any gas-driven car: The nozzle is tightly locked in place because the tank holds gas, not a liquid. The fuel costs EUR 9.50 per kilogram; you can drive around 100 kilometers per one kilogram of H2 gas.
Another question that may pop up: How far can I go with 5 kilograms in my tank? I drive in stop-and-go mode through the city. My experience is that you can go just about 370 kilometers with the car in winter. The German FAZ had test drivers travel from Dusseldorf via Hamburg – Berlin – Munich to Frankfurt, meaning on the highway, but not too fast. They were able to go as far as 470 kilometers on one tank. The Handelsblatt had the same experiment conducted, with good results.
Hamburg has three filling stations, whereas Germany has a mere 14 right now. Plans are to increase that number to 40, in a few years to 400. We need 1,000 H2 filling stations to be able to go everywhere and also come back safely.
Don’t buy, just lease
Yet another question is: How much does the Mirai cost? The list price is EUR 78,000. However, customers won’t be allowed to pay that amount for the car, as it is only sold with a leasing contract: Four years set at a monthly rate of EUR 1,020, excluding VAT but including service and maintenance as well as winter and summer tires. The Tesla Model S with an 85 kWh battery and comparable equipment: monthly leasing rate of EUR 1,256 (excl. VAT).
When I accepted delivery of the car, I gave Toyota my first recommendation: The car should have a water catch tank, as below zero degrees Celsius and soon thousands of fuel cell cars on the road could create icy conditions that would be especially unwelcome at sidewalk crossings. That’s Toyota: Recommendation endorsed! “We need to improve the Mirai even further,” the father of the project, Yoshikazu Tanaka, wrote to me from Tokyo.
Why are the Japanese – and also Korean carmakers (Hyundai) – the ones offering fuel cell cars and rapid technological advancements? Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, did not revel as other did in the opportunities of diesel technology, but paved the way for fuel cells to conquer the market. And even the chicken-and-egg question he decided on his own. Faced with the dilemma of whether to wait on a network of filling stations to be built or to design a fuel cell car first, he told his employees: We will provide the chicken, the fuel cell car. And he advanced it to mass production, albeit the number of units is still small.
The Mirai cannot be bought but only leased for four years, which covers insurance, maintenance and other services. After four years, the customer can choose a new model. In probably two years, I will get a fuel cell Lexus. The first Mirai car was presented to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; the second went to the governor of California. The first Mirai in Europe went to Denmark, the second to the UK and the third one to me, to Hamburg.
When I’m asked how I would rate Tesla’s battery-driven car, my answer is: I have never been behind the wheel of one, but the driver of one once overtook me on the road. Well, that’s great! But it’s not what I’m looking for in a car. The battery, which will undoubtedly be improved over the coming years, still leads into a technological dead end. There are around 45 million cars in Germany alone. The large battery will have to be replaced every three to four years, which adds up to around 10 to 15 million batteries each year. Under ecological aspects, it’s a no-brainer despite the “Yes we can” that has become so popular in Berlin’s political circles. I doubt it because batteries cannot be recycled that easily. Daimler did develop a post-lifetime scenario, but according to experts, it will be of too little use, i.e., the storage capacity of the largest battery stack will only be enough to cover one day worth of power supply across Germany.
As I said, I focus on the geopolitical aspects: Hydrogen from wind or solar generated domestically through electrolysis – no dependence on countries which could not be accurately described as prime examples of democracy. The political keyword is: “Power to gas.” The German word Wasserstoff is not a very popular one. In the minds of Germans, it still carries negative emotional overtones of Wasserstoffbomben (hydrogen bombs) and the Hindenburg catastrophe. The English “hydrogen” seems like the more appropriate choice.
Hydrogen gas can be stored indefinitely, whereas electricity cannot – unless you pump water into a basin on higher ground and if needed, let it flow down again to generate electricity. That may work in Norway but will be difficult to implement in Germany considering our comparably flat terrain. There are, however, more than enough salt cavities in which the gas can be stored.
Some years ago, our hydrogen association and the German federal states of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg commissioned the Bolköw Foundation to conduct a study on how to use the power that was generated by wind turbines but could not be fed into the grid. The recommendation was to use the power for electrolysis to generate and store an unlimited supply of hydrogen through electrolysis. H2 gas is needed in the industry and as soon as the carmakers wake up, there will be an endless demand for it.
Hydrogen can also be added to our natural gas pipelines or converted into CH4, meaning methanized and vice versa. Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia has put forward these and many other useful suggestions.
More than electrical resistance
Almost all oil companies except for Shell show no or little interest in the technology. For example, Exxon focuses on algae harvesting as an alternative. The finance ministry worries more about its fuel tax revenue (in 2015 mineral oil taxes raked in EUR 40 billion, plus EUR 19 billion in VAT on gas and diesel – a tax on top of a tax). The export industry is thinking of its customers in the oil-producing countries. In turn, the oil-producing nations are thinking of their export earnings (e.g., Russia). And the oil corporations want to keep their profits and the financial authorities their corporate taxes.
The carmakers would like to continue equipping established car models with conventional engines. In Las Vegas, VW just presented the Budd-e, a battery car which is scheduled for mass production in 2020, in addition to a Golf with a battery-driven engine.
All of that won’t help – the time for mass-market hydrogen will come. The agreements made in Paris need to be fulfilled; it’s not only about air pollution but noise emissions as well. There are no limits to wind, solar and water power. Just recently, Rom and Milan had to restrict car usage throughout their cities. Now, it’s also Stuttgart – and let’s not even talk about Beijing. Additionally, Google is looking to develop the new self-driving car. It will be a fuel cell one if it wants to have a future.
I’m looking forward to what the future holds because I will keep heading into the same direction at the same speed. Like the saying goes: Don’t just complain, do something!
This article is based on a presentation held by author Nikolaus W. Schües at the Rotary Club in Hamburg-Altona, Germany, on Jan. 22, 2016, entitled “Mirai – The future of the hydrogen industry.”
Author: Nikolaus W. Schües