Exclusive: Toyota Hydrogen Boss Explains How Fuel Cells Can Achieve Corolla Costs

Hydrogen fuel cells have been written off for decades, but Toyota's Katsuhiko Hirose says they area just coming into their own.

Bertel Schmitt

If you want to bring the wrath of Twitter upon you, suggest that electric vehicles could be powered by something other than batteries. Only the utterly naïve seem to think that any technology bringing zero emission transportation should be worth the consideration. Mention fuel cells, and you will swiftly be denounced as an idiot, an agent of Big Oil, or worse. Tesla’s Elon Musk routinely piles invective on fuel cells, calling them "mind-bogglingly stupid," "incredibly dumb" and "fool cells”—schoolyard taunts that resonate especially well with battery-bullies.

The other side of the holy war for the most part quietly turns the other cheek. Well, until this morning, as I sit down in a coffee shop in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station for an exclusive interview with one of the central figures of Toyota’s fuel cell project. Professor Katsuhiko Hirose has been in charge of Toyota’s Fuel Cell system development, and he tells me why Musk is rightfully afraid of the fuel cell: Hydrogen Fuel cell vehicles will eventually be cheaper than gasoline-powered cars, opening the door to zero-emission transportation around the world, and not just in rich pockets that can afford battery-electric vehicles that are dependent on scarce natural resources and government support. 

Hydrogen fuel stations are few and far between, and this scarcity opens the door for skepticism of the future of fuel cell cars. Hirose was a young physicist who had traded nuclear fusion for an engineering job at Toyota, where he developed early digital engine controller units. This turned into an assignment of managing fuel economy and emissions for a pie-in-the-sky project that became the hybrid Toyota Prius. When a skunkworks team at Toyota started looking into hydrogen fuel cells, Hirose joined the ranks of people pooh-pooing the project. “I am a scientist, and I pointed out that hydrogen was an energy that needed energy to be produced. I questioned where the hydrogen would come from, and where it would be stored. There were no proper and safe large-scale storage systems at the time,” Hirose remembered. “Ironically, I later I became the person to develop advanced hydrogen storage.”

That came when in 2003 Hirose’s boss Mitsuhisa Kato told him that “it’s time to join the enemy” and switch from hybrid to working on hydrogen. Hirose was made General Manager of Toyota’s fuel cell systems development, and he had to work on dispelling his own doubts. He wasn’t the only doubter.

Three years later, in 2006, the German scientist Ulf Bossel wrote a paper that basically claimed that that making hydrogen from electricity is a waste of energy. Storing the same quantity of energy in a battery rather than turning it into hydrogen for storage and later use is more efficient, Bossel posited. Decades later, the battery cam still treats this paper as if it was brought down from Mount Sinai on two iPads. To this day, Bossel’s screed remains the ideological basis of pure battery doctrine. 

Toyota/Magical Mystery Plant Tour

Bossel made a fundamental mistake in his analysis, Hirose says about the fellow nuclear physicist. Bossel assumed Hydrogen would be made using existing electricity. “If the starting point is that the electricity is already there, and if you use that existing electricity to make hydrogen with electrolysis, then yes, you would lose 30% of that energy,” Hirose says. “But people forget that when that electricity was made from natural gas, or coal, 60% to 70% of the energy was lost. If hydrogen is produced directly from natural gas or even coal, they will not lose 60 or 70% of the energy. It all depends on where you start.” 

The bulk of today’s hydrogen is not made from electrolysis, but by reforming mostly natural gas, or even coal. Strangely, Bossel did not, as he himself admitted, “consider this option, although hydrogen can be chemically synthesized at relatively low cost.” 

Another mainstay of the counter-fuel-cell dogma is that "when storing liquid hydrogen, some gas must be allowed to evaporate for safety reasons, meaning that after two weeks, a car would lose half of its fuel, even when not being driven.” No wonder that hydrogen loses out if we let half of it evaporate before it can power a vehicle. Ah, but Bossel is talking about “liquid” hydrogen, and Hirose calls him on it.

“Automakers have long given up the idea of using liquid hydrogen in their passenger cars,” exactly because their small tanks lack sufficient insulation for the minus 253 Centigrades of the liquid hydrogen, and half of it could indeed boil away within two weeks, I am told. The hydrogen used in fuel cell cars is pressurized, not liquid, and it won’t escape. However, it may escape those who still copypaste a 13-year-old, and long outdated paper. 

Large scale storage of liquid hydrogen, on the other hand, is extremely practical, I learn over a second coffee from Toyota’s expert for advanced hydrogen storage systems: “At Japan’s space station in Tanegashima, enough liquid hydrogen to power a number of rocket launches is stored for many months with evaporation of less than 1 % of volume.” Even that is not wasted, and is used for power generation or other applications.

Another matter escaping the author of the alleged analysis was the heft of the battery. Weight is the enemy of mileage, and trying to gain range by adding more battery quickly becomes a losing proposition as more and more energy is wasted dragging a heavy battery around. Nowhere does this hurt more than with the electric trucks planned by several automakers.

 “A battery-electric 40 ton truck with 500km range needs 8 tons of battery. That’s ridiculous,” says Hirose. “You want to transport goods, not a huge battery. A fuel cell stack is much lighter and easier to handle.” A hydrogen fuel cell powertrain’s weight is comparable to that of a diesel engine, Hirose tells me, sometimes it’s even lighter. “Per weight, hydrogen delivers three times the energy of diesel fuel, but it also needs a heavier tank,” Hirose says.

Times and technologies have changed since Ulf Bossel wrote the paper, and he himself has long departed from the pure battery faith. Ulf Bossel is now owner of the Swiss Almus AG, which sells the UBOCELL, a small SOFC fuel cell that turns hydrogen into electricity.

Toyota/Magical Mystery Plant Tour

The biggest threat to the battery camp has been kept under cover so far – until this morning when I order my third coffee: Fuel cell vehicles will soon be cheaper than Toyota’s own hybrid cars, and they may one day become cheaper than regular cars. That may come as a jaw-dropper, after all, haven’t we been told that fuel cell cars are inordinately expensive, because they use high amounts of platinum? 

Nonsense, says Hirose: “Back when the first fuel cell vehicles supposedly cost a million dollars, we used 100 gram of Platinum in them. You can buy that for $3,000. Now we are using …” And he pauses. “Much, much less.” A back and forth ensues on how little Platinum goes into Toyota’s fuel cell stack, and finally, Hirose reveals that it is in the neighborhood of the platinum in a catalytic converter for diesel cars, which “uses around 10 grams of Platinum.”

“People still think fuel cells use a lot of expensive precious metals. Not true,” says Hirose. “The most expensive stuff of the fuel cell stack is a 0.01 millimeter thin membrane. The rest of the stack is very cheap. Actually, the most expensive part of the fuel cell is the process, it’s the making of the stack, not the materials going into it.”

That puts the fuel cell at a huge cost advantage vis-a-vis the battery. “70% of the cost of the battery is in the raw materials,” says Hirose, and the price of raw materials usually does not come down as demand goes up. Neither do batteries free us from being tied to political hotbeds. A key ingredient of batteries is Cobalt, and 66% of the world supply comes from the allegedly Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is mined amid continuous complaints about human rights abuses. Cobalt prices have been exploding, and OEMs are in a rush to secure supplies. Lithium is plentiful in comparison, but nonetheless, The Telegraph reportsof “a frenzy of activity as a global scramble erupts to extract the metal and secure supplies for lithium-ion batteries.” As long as there is water (H2O, two atoms of Hydrogen for one of Oxygen) in the world, there is no way to run out of Hydrogen. 

With 70% of the battery cost tied to raw materials, cost optimizations must focus on the remaining 30%, and “the battery is already scaled out,” says Hirose. But haven’t battery costs come down a lot? “Battery cost has come down drastically because of overcapacity,” Hirose says. “Batteries are a commodity, and if someone sells them 10% cheaper, they get the sale, increasingly below cost.” The huge battery factories built around the world require monstrous up-front investments, and advances in technology leave little time to recoup the CAPEX. Toyota’s battery partner Panasonic wrote “$7 bln in losses in two years, mainly over the write-down of an outdated battery factory,” Hirose says, “and many battery makers are in the same situation.” 

Panasonic makes the battery cells that Tesla then turns into battery modules in its Nevada Gigafactory. Panasonic is “still losing money” with Tesla, Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga recently told Bloomberg, saying he was hopeful it would change. Meanwhile, the round 18650 and 2170 cells Panasonic makes for Tesla are already outdated, and when Toyota and Panasonic announced an alliance to first make prismatic cells, and then solid state, Tsuga was publicly hoping that technology would not advance too quickly, saying that “If we would have shift to solid state batteries all in a sudden, our investments would be wasted.”

In comparison to batteries, “fuel cells still are in the very early stages of scale,” says Hirose. Toyota makes around 3,000 of its $60,000 Mirai fuel cell car, but it is “building a new factory to increase the production to 30,000 per year by 2020,” Hirose tells me. On top of that, Toyota supplies its fuel cell technology to trucks, buses, and “many applications beyond mobility,” Hirose says, a scale that already allows Toyota to have “the lowest cost fuel cell in the world.”

It is Toyota’s plan to bring the price of fuel cell cars to the level of hybrid cars by 2025, but “personally, I am not very comfortable with that target,” Hirose admits. “To change the world into alternative fuel, we need to provide the fuel cell cheaper than conventional vehicles. That is my personal objective. I think it can be done.”

This may sound like an outrageous claim, but according to fuel cell engineer Matthew Klippenstein, who is also co-author of the industry-standard Fuel Cell Industry Review, "Toyota's optimism on fuel cell costs is quietly shared in the industry, even as batteries have deservedly earned headlines. As the production of fuel cells scales, their cost will plummet.”

Toyota/Magical Mystery Plant Tour

I ask Hirose when he thinks that a fuel cell car will cost less than a Corolla.

After a pause, he says: 

“It depends on how serious we are about truly sustainable transportation. It can’t be done only by Toyota. If society is willing to provide the resources, it’s possible. I’m now 63 years old, I think I will live to see it.”

The debate about the fine nuances between batteries and fuel cell stacks has not ended, and it will rage on as long as factories have to be amortized, and as long as there is government money no one wants to share with the other camp. While battery power gets all the headlines, support for hydrogen is growing around the world. During the World Economic Forum 2017 in Davos, a Hydrogen Council was founded with 53 energy, transport and industry companies as members, and with Hirose as Toyota’s spokesperson in that forum. China announced plans for 350 hydrogen stations by 2025. Germany wants to have 400 stations by that date. Japan threw the heft of the world’s third largest economy behind fuel cells and announced plans to turn the island nation into a “hydrogen society” anywhere between 2030 and 2050. Japan’s capital Tokyo wants hydrogen in a greater hurry, and aims to realize the hydrogen society by 2020, when the Olympics roll into town next year. 

Hirose is an outspoken man, and he doesn’t “like the term hydrogen society,” as he admits. “Hydrogen society means we fully bet on hydrogen. Instead, we should bet on a portfolio of solutions for a sustainable society. Of course, the government can incentivize, but in the long term, we need to provide what the customer likes to choose. This is not about batteries vs. fuel cell. It is about sustainable, zero emission transportation, and about customer choice.”

 “A sustainable society is a lot of work,” Hirose says as he collects his things to catch his Shinkansen back to Nagoya, “but if we postpone decisions about matters like global warming, we steal the future of our children. As a company man, I should not say this,” he tells me, “but maybe you can.”

I just did.