Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

WATCH: Hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai breaks new ground in SA

Only one kilogram of hydrogen can give this fuel cell car a range of 100km.

While battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are often touted as the future of all things motoring, there are lesser publicised alternatives to internal combustion engines running on fossil fuels.

One of these is hydrogen fuel cell technology. Like BEVs, fuel cell vehicles are driven by electric motors. But instead of it running from a battery that is recharged with electricity, it uses compressed hydrogen from a tank and oxygen from the air to create the electricity required to run the motor.

Watch the Toyota Mirai from up close

As firm an advocate the automotive future won’t be restricted to a single technology, it’s no surprise that Toyota is one of the pioneers of fuel cell vehicles. The Japanese carmaker started to experiment with it during the early 1990s already. Its fuel cell flagbearer, the Mirai, is already into its second-generation. It boasts sales of over 12 000 worldwide since making its debut in 2015.

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Mirai is the Japanese word for future.

For fuel cell vehicles to become commercially available in South Africa, it will require a lot more than merely shipping them in. It will require an infrastructure of commercially available hydrogen, and clean hydrogen as such. If the hydrogen is not produced with renewable energy, it defeats the purpose of being an alternative to fossil fuels.

This process has begun in Mzansi by virtue of a partnership between Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM), Sasol and Air Products. It involves TSAM supplying the vehicle, Sasol producing the green hydrogen and Air Products dispensing it. The trio believes that over time, they can create enough awareness and actively establish an infrastructure that can make hydrogen fuel cell technology a sustainable alternative.

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Toyota Mirai unveiled

The trio gave its first public demonstration at the Smart Mobility Africa summit in Midrand on Monday. After Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi filled a Toyota Mirai from a mobile hydrogen filling station, he was given a ceremonial trip around the parking lot by TSAM president and CEO Andrew Kirby.

“Toyota’s stance is that it is not possible to predict the future. That is why we have opted for a multi-strategy approach,” said Kirby.

“Toyota has invested heavily in hybrid, plug-in-hybrid, battery electric and fuel cell technology. In addition, we are also looking at the prospect of synthetic fuels.

“We believe there will be two to three dominant technologies in future.”

Kirby added that hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to play a big role in commercial transport. Being the lightest element, hydrogen has a unique energy density giving it two to three times better “tank to wheel” efficiency.

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Very efficient

“It only takes 6.8kg of hydrogen to refuel the Toyota Mirai, which gives it a range of over 500km,” said Kirby.

“Because of its efficiency, a lot of focus will be on commercial transport like long haul trucks.”

Fleetwood Grobler, president and CEO of Sasol, said that the partnership was an “important stepping stone towards realising the ambitious goal of developing an on-road hydrogen mobility ecosystem”.

Priscillah Mabelane, vice-president for energy business added that Sasol is on target to ramp up its green hydrogen production to commercial scale from 2024.

“Currently we can produce 150kg per day using the 3MW generated by a solar farm in Sasolburg. This will be supplemented by 69MW of renewable energy from a wind farm in the Eastern Cape in 2024. That will ramp up production to 3 500kg a day,” said Mabelane.

Green is the word

Rob Richardson, managing director of Air Products, stressed the importance of producing commercial scale hydrogen with no carbon footprint.

“Hydrogen is known to be one of the most abundant elements on earth but because it’s not freely available in its purest form, it requires energy to free the bonds,” said Richardson.

“Hydrogen has been around for a long time and has been used in vehicles not in the traditional sense.”

Air Products, an American company, has been operational in Mzansi since the 1960s. Founded in 1940, the company made a name for itself by providing hydrogen for Nasa for its moon landing missions.

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Still pricey

“Globally we have been conducting safe hydrogen fuelling for more than 25 years. During that time we have conducted an average of 1.5 million hydrogen fuelling operations a year.

“Only one kilogram of hydrogen gives the Toyota Mirai a range of 100km. If you compare this to a traditional engine, it will require around seven litres to complete the same distance. Hydrogen can therefore give unconstrained payloads.

“But the cost is still high compared to other technologies. When it starts getting mass produced, the price gap can get smaller and tilt into fuel cells’ favour.”

The international price for hydrogen has already come down from around $5.50 (about R100) to $3.50 per kilogram. According to Kirby, it will get a lot more appealing once the price drops between one and two dollars.

TSAM will only decide on whether the Toyota Mirai is a viable option for the local market once a network of hydrogen fuelling stations has become a reality.

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