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Hindenburg blurs Shell’s vision of hydrogen-driven cars

Jessica Shankleman
Bloomberg News

Taxi driver Theo Ellis, the first person in Europe to drive Toyota Motor Corp.’s hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan for business, loves telling passengers about the technology that emits nothing but water.

They ask him about its costs, greenness, and most inquire about safety. To his passengers, the word “hydrogen” evokes memories of the Hindenburg, the airship that was destroyed in half a minute when it caught fire in 1937, or the H-bomb, a successor to what the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II.

“That will put people off,” Ellis, who drives for London-based Green Tomato Cars Ltd., said in an interview. “A lot of people mention that. As soon as you mention hydrogen it’s the first thing on their mind.”

It’s those perceptions that represent one of the biggest hurdles for Toyota and Royal Dutch Shell Plc as they seek to make hydrogen fuel cells a commercial alternative to gasoline-powered cars around the globe. The Japanese automaker and the European oil producer are among the most prominent advocates of the technology, which they see as safer and less polluting than fossil fuels.

Use of the lightest element has come a long way since the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey killed 36 people and was immortalized on the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. Fuel cells have been used safely for generations, most famously in the U.S. space program. The cells set up a chemical reaction between the fuel and oxygen in the air, inducing an electric charge and leaving behind water vapor.

There’s plenty of differences between the Hindenburg and the Mirai, starting with the durability of the storage tank.

In the ill-fated airship, hydrogen gas was contained in giant bags made of coated cotton. Toyota’s tank is made of carbon and glass fibers and lined with plastic. If gas leaked, sensors would detect it and shut down the car. Shell reckons that in a crash, hydrogen is likely to evaporate while gasoline risks forming a puddle that’s easy to ignite.

People who work with fuel cells say comparisons with the Hindenburg aren’t fair. Eighty years after the German airship exploded and plunged to the ground, the exact cause remains a mystery.

“The fire and explosion at Hindenburg was nothing to do with hydrogen, and that is the mindset you’ve got to change with people,” said Jon Hunt, who is in charge of commercialization of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for Toyota GB Plc. In the airship disaster, “there were a number of things, including materials used and operational practice that would be totally mitigated by normal good practice now.”

His hope is that people will trust the technology to keep them safe just as they do with mobile phones. People continue to carry lithium-ion powered handsets even after Samsung Electronic Co.’s Note 7 smart phones caught fire last year and Boeing Co. planes had fires started by battery units.

Fuel cells are starting to take hold, and not just in cars.

In Japan, companies including Panasonic Corp. are selling thousands of fuel cells to power individual homes. U.S. listed companies such as FuelCell Energy Inc., Plug Power Inc. and Ballard Power Systems Inc. are putting them into fork lifts and commercial power generators. Automakers including General Motors Corp. and Volkswagen AG have joined Toyota in designing fuel-cell cars.