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Toyota, Shell Place Their Bets on Fuel Cells for the Future

While electric vehicles have long been identified as a leading solution to reduce emissions and combat climate change, hydrogen fuel cells are still met with significant criticism. The flammability of the element leaves many skeptical about the feasibility of fuel cell vehicles, but for companies such as Toyota and Shell, hydrogen is the future.

“When no more combustion of fuel is allowed, hydrogen will become one of the major sources of fuel, of that we’re confident,” said Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s president of advanced research and development engineering.

The automaker has teamed up with Royal Dutch Shell Plc to scale up fuel cell infrastructure, making hydrogen cars a convenient and reliable alternative to traditional fossil-fuel dependent vehicles.

The partnership will see Shell build seven hydrogen fueling stations across California — the state with the toughest clean air rules in the United States and directives for zero-emission vehicles. The California Energy Commission could grant $16.4 million to the project, with Shell and Toyota contributing $11.4 million. The construction of the stations would contribute to the state’s goal of having 100 retail sites where fuel cell vehicles can fill up by 2024.

For Toyota, the partnership isn’t just a flirtation with fuel cell technology — the automaker intends to make hydrogen a key component of its phase out of traditional engine models by 2050. The lack of refueling infrastructure is a major obstacle to the widespread adoption of hydrogen and electric vehicles alike, but the partnership with Shell could prove to be a significant turning point.

For Toyota, Shell was a natural partner for the project. The company has big plans to shift away from oil and gas and already owns seven hydrogen stations — four in Germany, two in the Los Angeles area and one at its Cobham, England service station, with two more in the works across the UK.

In addition to the new partnership with Toyota, Shell is part of a joint venture in Germany to open a network of up to 400 hydrogen sites by 2023.

“Shell wants to be in the forefront of this technology,” said Oliver Bishop, general manager for hydrogen.

“We believe the journey to a low-carbon economy requires a coordinated and collaborative approach among organizations in the transport sector, including providers of energy and transport vehicles, users of transport vehicles, local authorities, as well as government,” said Sinead Lynch, Shell’s UK Country Chair.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a viable solution to the emissions problem is still a relatively novel idea, but Toyota isn’t the only car company with fuel cells on the brain — Honda, Hyundai and Daimler AG will also be selling fuel cell vehicles in California this year. By 2020, Toyota plans to sell 10-times more hydrogen cars, such as its new Mirai, than the 3,000 it expects to sell this year.

Hydrogen offers a number of benefits as a fuel: It produces only water as a byproduct — eliminating greenhouse gases from the equation — and takes only a few minutes to refuel, unlike electric vehicles. There are, however, a number of drawbacks. The production and storage of H2 can be energy intensive and if that energy is not derived from renewable sources, it negates the benefits of using fuel cells. Storage presents another issue — it requires either a high-pressure environment or very cold temperatures. Production of hydrogen vehicles is also a painstakingly slow process at present, which could pose difficulties as demand grows. Expanding infrastructure and advancements in technology will be required to truly build a “hydrogen society.”


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