Toyota on hydrogen fuel cell technology: “Simply a better battery”

Toyota hydrogen fuel cell system
© Eric Rogell

On Monday, November 17, 2014, Toyota invited Treehugger and several other select journalists from around the world to Newport Beach, California, to witness the unveiling of their long anticipated, finally road-ready, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV), dubbed Mirai.

In Japanese, “Mirai” means “future,” and for Toyota, they see a bright, clean, future where the roads are filled with FCVs emitting nothing into the environment but water vapor and smiles from eco-conscious drivers.

Toyota 2016 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car© Toyota

While many are not drinking the hydrogen Kool-Aid just yet—with questions surrounding just how clean the production of hydrogen fuel really is (i.e. natural gas fracking, CO2 emissions), saying FCVs simply “move the tailpipe” upstream to the production stage—there are a number of other auto manufacturers following Toyota’s lead into FCV production (Hyundai’s Tucson FCV is also road ready), with local and federal governments jumping on board to make the much needed infrastructure a reality.

Whether you’re pro or con, hydrogen fuel is - after many years of waiting - finally here. And it looks to only get cleaner and easier to produce and purchase as the technology is refined and the infrastructure is built.

Father of the Prius bets big on FCVs

We had the good fortune and honor to be seated with the Chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation (and father of the Prius), Takeshi Uchiyamada at dinner. During a lively conversation, you see just how passionate and committed the man who made hybrid technology a widely accepted, mass-market reality is about the future of mobility in the world.

Hydrogen Fuel tank cutaway© Eric Rogell

Chairman Uchiyamada firmly believes that over the next 100 years, we will become a hydrogen-based society—not just for transportation, but for our overall energy needs. And, while he wont give exact numbers (even after repeated prodding and glasses of wine), it is safe to assume, after two decades of research and development, he and Toyota have bet billions of dollars on it.

Toyota fuel cell powering a home© Eric Rogell

A Foolish Quest?

Uchiyamada’s exuberance for hydrogen fuel cell technology as a “societal and economic game-changer” is only exceeded by his counterpart from the Prius program, and current Managing Officer of Toyota Motor Corporation, Satoshi Ogiso.

During his presentation, Mr. Ogisio said for many years the idea of using hydrogen gas to power automobiles has been seen by many smart people as a foolish quest. He even threw in a Don Quixote reference for good measure.

But he was quick to remind us that just 20 years ago, he was told by similar people that the Prius hybrid was “nothing more than a science project and economically unfeasible.” And we know how that turned out…

Toyota hydrogen fuel cell stack© Toyota

“Simply a Better Battery”

Chairman Uchiyamada has said that hydrogen fuel cell technology is “simply a better battery.” And that’s what’s so important to understand—FCVs are really just electric vehicles powered by a battery, just like the EVs on the road today. The major difference is they carry their refueling source on board, rather than from a plug in the wall. (So maybe calling them FCEVs would be more accurate.)

Toyota FCV fuel port© Eric Rogell

This gives FCVs several important advantages over current EVs. And before we list a few, there are two important things to remember:

1 – We are not going to argue which of the two is cleaner or has an overall smaller carbon footprint. That’s another discussion. This is just EV battery to EV battery.

2 – This also doesn’t take into consideration the lack of current infrastructure. Just as many of us don’t live near a hydrogen station, many of us also live in apartments or condos, or work in office buildings where we can’t recharge an EV overnight or all day either. So, again, just EV battery to EV battery.

Toyota FCV hydrogen fueling© Eric Rogell

FCVs Advantages Over EVs:
• Greater driving range. The Mirai has a range of 300 miles when both on-board hydrogen tanks are full, double or triple the range of most EVs

• Faster charge/refuel. FCVs can be fully refueled in 3-5 mins, about the same time to refuel a standard gasoline vehicle. EV batteries take 8 hours to fully charge, and a DC quick charge will give you 80% in roughly 20 minutes

• Fuel cell technology can be scaled to power buses, semi trucks, even heavy machinery. Toyota is already using it on buses in Japan, and to power forklifts at their factories. While battery-powered EVs can also scale up, FCV could turn out to be more flexible, in part because refilling a hydrogen tank - even a big one - 
should be faster than recharging a massive battery.
• It can power your home. Hydrogen fuel cells are already in use as an alternative to gas powered generators, and the Mirai has an optional “out” port that allows you to supply electrical power the average sized home for about a week when the Mirai’s tanks are full, and indefinitely if you still have a supply of hydrogen available. Handy in the aftermath of a storm or blackout.

Keep in mind, none of the auto manufacturers see FCVs as a replacement to EVs—or to hybrids or gas powered vehicles for that matter. They are simply another alternative, another choice to make depending on your personal needs, driving habits and lifestyle.

But as FCV technology gets better (and cheaper), as hydrogen fueling stations become more and more widely available, and the fuel itself becomes cleaner to produce (a lot of people are working on this), Toyota and Chairman Uchiyamada are betting FCVs like the Mirai will become the obvious choice.

Tags: Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Fuel Cells


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