When it comes to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, there are three major challenges which threaten their chances of becoming mass-market vehicles: the cost of producing the cars themselves; the cost and complexity of building hydrogen fuelling stations; and the industrialisation of hydrogen fuel production using environmentally-friendly methods.
Automakers like Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, all of whom have plans to dominate the hydrogen fuel cell market, are already at work trying to solve the first part themselves, massively reducing the costs of producing the hydrogen fuel cell stack that lies at the heart of every vehicle by as much as ninety-five percent in the last six years and promising further reductions by 2020.
Now the Japanese government has stepped in to help with the second by announcing a new set of rules aimed to make building and maintaining hydrogen refuelling infrastructure cheaper and easier in the world’s most hydrogen-obsessed economy.
As TechInAsia reports (via Autobloggreen), the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry quietly announced the new technical standards last week for the siting and operation of compressed hydrogen filling stations. Essentially a loosening of existing regulations, the new technical standards have been designed to make it easier and cheaper for companies to install hydrogen fuelling stations by changing the requirements for how far away from a public area tanks must be and how the fuel itself is stored.
Originally, Japan’s regulations on hydrogen refuelling stations required stations to be six meters away from public spaces, but the new regulations lessen this distance assuming the supplier has followed all appropriate safety precautions. While the exact distance isn’t specified, it’s generally assumed to be somewhere around the four-meter separation requirements for gasoline filling stations. If our assumptions are correct, this would make it far more easy for existing gasoline filling stations to install hydrogen fuel pumps.
The new guidelines also make it possible for hydrogen refuelling stations to use composite storage tanks for the first time in Japan, replacing the costly steel or non-ferrous metal units required in previous regulation and allowing the use of materials like carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. Cheaper and easier to deal with, these new tank regulations do come with some additional regulations mandating suppliers take all necessary steps to ensure there’s no deterioration to tank structural integrity over time due to heat, ultraviolet light, rain water and other hazards.
While the regulations still allow the use of steel, they have also expanded the temperature range that steel-based tanks can operate in, making it cheaper and easier to install and maintain steel-based tanks than it was under previous regulations.
In addition, the regulations introduce the concept of accessory hydrogen freezing — or pre-cooling — equipment, which help cool the tanks of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles prior to refuelling. By pre-cooling a vehicle’s tanks prior to refuelling, this enables a faster refuelling time while curbing an increase in temperature of the compressed gas due to adiabatic compression of the hydrogen as it passes from filling station tank into the vehicle.
Finally, the regulations make it possible for operators to use liquified hydrogen as a raw material rather than require stations transport and store just compressed hydrogen. This makes it easier to transport hydrogen fuel from one place to another since the liquid itself takes less space than the gas, and makes it possible for refilling stations to store higher amounts of hydrogen on-site too, compressing hydrogen as required for use in vehicles during the filling and pre-filling process.
Combined, these changes in regulation will undoubtedly make it easier for Japan to dramatically increase its refuelling infrastructure. But with only a few hundred fuel cell cars on order from mainly Governmental fleets in Japan at the time of writing, asking fuel providers to invest in hydrogen filling infrastructure will still be a massively uphill struggle.
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