Fun facts about hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles

Toyota Mirai FCV
© Toyota

With several starts and stops over the last 20 years or so, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are finally hitting the roads. Lead by Toyota, with their Mirai FCV available next year, several automakers have announced they are adding FCVs to their lineup, including Hyundai’s Tucson FCV and Audi’s A7 h-tron.

Whether you agree hydrogen fuel is the best solution for ending our dependence on fossil fuels, or you’re skeptical the technology will catch on (or is really cleaner than other fuels), here are some fun facts and things to know about hydrogen fuel and FCVs:

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the known universe (though unfortunately not easily found in its pure form on Earth).

Hydrogen was the primary gas used in the world’s gaslights for centuries (along with other gases), long before electric lights.

Toyota began working on fuel cell technology 20 years ago. About the same time as the Prius gasoline/electric hybrid project.

Toyota gave its engineers 36 months to get the Prius hybrid from concept to the road. Fuel cells have (obviously) taken a lot longer.

Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel station© Toyota

In the mid 90’s, some experts called hybrid technology nothing but a science experiment and a foolish quest. Similar things are now being said about FCVs.

Acceptance of fuel cell vehicles isn’t expected to happen overnight. It took Prius and hybrids nearly 10 years to become widely accepted. Only 1 million hybrid cars were sold globally over those 10 years—nearly 7 million units sold over the next several years.

Automakers don’t expect FCVs to be a replacement for current gas/electric hybrids, electric vehicles or even standard gasoline engines. They see them as another choice for people who want to live a green lifestyle.

Toyota hydrogen fuel cell stack© Toyota

Hydrogen fuel can be made from many sources, including wind, solar and even garbage, not just natural gas.

The Fountain Valley hydrogen station in Newport Beach, CA where we refueled our test Mirai, gets its fuel from the Orange County Sanitation District through a “Tri-Generation” process—a collaborative project between the sanitation district, UC Irvine and Toyota. The process turns raw sewage into electricity, heat and hydrogen before it sends the cleaned water on its way to the Pacific Ocean off Brookhurst St. Beach.

Excess solar and wind energy that would normally be lost, can be stored as hydrogen fuel. Denmark has an excess of wind energy and is embracing FCVs.

Technologies are being developed to capture the CO2 created from hydrogen fuel production before it is released into the atmosphere.

When compressed hydrogen is very dense and easy to transport.

Hydrogen provides a much denser energy than gasoline. Just over 5 kilos of hydrogen deliver a 300+ mile range for a full-sized sedan, about twice the output of an equivalent amount of gasoline.

Hydrogen fuel cells are already being used as stationary generators in place of battery and gas powered generators. The Toyota Mirai can power the average house for about a week from the 5 kilos of hydrogen in its twin tanks.

1 kilo of hydrogen is roughly equal to 1 gallon of gasoline.

Toyota hydrogen fuel cell system© Eric Rogell

The reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that produces electricity also produces water. This water is emitted as vapor out of the tailpipe, and is purged automatically from the tanks periodically. You can also purge the water with a switch before parking in freezing temperatures to avoid having it freeze in the line.

A computer program called “Street” is used to identify the optimal number of, and locations for, hydrogen fueling stations. To service the San Francisco Bay area, Silicon Valley, and LA, Orange and San Diego counties—allowing owners there to reach a station within 6 minutes—the magic number is just 68 stations. It isn’t necessary to have a station on every corner like gas stations.

Currently there are only about 10 active hydrogen fuel cell “demonstration stations” in California. Funding has already passed to build as many as 100 stations in the state—20 by the end of 2015, and 40 by 2016.

A “Hydrogen Highway” is being built in the northeast corridor: 12 strategically selected locations in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The world is also committed to hydrogen fuel:
Germany is going from 15 current stations to 50 stations in 2015, and 100 by 2020.

Japan is targeting an increase from 17 stations to more than 100 by 2016, with major government support.

Korea has a goal of more than 160 stations by 2020.

The UK will have 15 stations by 2015, with a target of 65 by 2020.

Denmark is committed to 15 new stations by 2020 as part of their national renewable network program using their excess wind energy.

Hydrogen Fuel tank cutaway© Eric Rogell

The expectation is hydrogen fuel will cost roughly $10 per kilo in the US market. If you figure a factor of 2 for mileage over gasoline, then it would be about a $5 per gallon equivalent cost. However, for the next three years or so, automakers are giving the fuel away to those who purchase or lease FCVs, so your cost would be zero.

The Mirai is only 100-150 kilo heavier than a current Camry hybrid, and is much lighter than electric vehicles with a 200-mile range. Automakers are also working to reduce the fuel cell weight generation by generation to make them even lighter.

Fuel cells are scalable, meaning they can be used to power large vehicles, such as buses, trucks, and forklifts. Battery systems for electric vehicles are not scalable to power large vehicles.

The onboard hydrogen tanks are made of ultra strong fibers woven using a loom similar to the looms Toyota Corp manufactured in 1926.

The tanks are bulletproof. Large caliber rounds were fired at the fully pressurized tanks to test their integrity in an accident. The only bullet that was able to pierce a tank was a 50 caliber round—and only after hitting the exact same spot twice.

Toyota hired former military snipers to fire those bullets.

Hydrogen in the tanks is pressurized to 10,000 psi.

Every crash test found the fuel cell structure and tanks were stronger than the steel structures around them. The steel failed before the tanks did.

Toyota logged over 1 million test miles—in temperatures from way below zero to well above 100 degrees F—to test performance in extreme conditions.

A fuel cell is required to last 5,000 hours or 150,000 miles before needing to be replaced.

Tags: Fuel Cells

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