Tesla has single-handedly changed the future of cars, forcing the more traditional automakers to play catchup. Electric vehicles are now the mainstay of every automaker’s lineup. Even doubters like General Motors and Volkswagen (VW) are fast building their electric vehicle (EV).
But, one company is still digging its heels. The Japanese giant Toyota is not putting all its eggs on EVs. While they do plan to launch electric vehicles, they continue to bet strongly on fuel cells.
Why? Hasn’t the fuel cell tech lost the auto wars?
The fuel cell tech uses hydrogen
On paper, fuel cell technology is the perfect clean energy solution to fight climate change. Hydrogen in a liquefied form is passed through a fuel cell that produces energy to run a vehicle. Water is the by-product. Hydrogen packs more energy per unit mass than any other form of fuel.
While gasoline packs 46 MJ per kg of the fuel, hydrogen packs 120 MJ per kg, ~2.5 times more. So in an ideal world, less hydrogen would be needed to run the same vehicle than fossil fuels. Only a few fuel cells would be needed, keeping the vehicle light, unlike heavy batteries. The other advantage is refueling is quick much like regular gas.
“Fuel cells, which use clean power-generation methods, emit only water, and, because of their high energy density, can provide a lot of energy” Shigeki Terashi, Toyota Executive Vice President
Why hydrogen fuel cell adoption is still low?
Hydrogen revolution was promised more than a decade ago by Gov. Schwarzenegger in California. It did not happen. Hydrogen tech is plagued by both the demand and supply problem. The supply chain is not robust. There aren’t enough refueling stations and some are often closed for maintenance. There are also interruptions at the sources of hydrogen as well. Hydrogen is currently sourced at fossil fuel-run plants where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen.
The other big problem is the cost. Fuel cell tech is still pricey. Current hydrogen prices hover around $16 per gallon. One reason is that fuel cells use Platinum alloy as a catalyst. Platinum is costly. Research is on to reduce the amount of Platinum used or even drop it to cut down the costs.
“Widespread, sustainable commercialization of fuel cell electric vehicles requires either a dramatic reduction in the amount of platinum required or the replacement of platinum catalysts with those made of earth-abundant, inexpensive materials like iron.” Deborah Myers, Senior Chemist at Argonne National Laboratory.
The storage of the gas adds to the cost. The gas while energy-dense by mass is not so dense by volume. Keeping it in tanks in a liquid state requires cooling. All this adds to the cost of the fuel. Each refueling, therefore, costs more than gasoline and significantly more than electricity. This makes hydrogen-based cars more like a white elephant, expensive to purchase and costly to maintain. Therefore, it makes little sense to buy a hydrogen-powered car.
Then why is Toyota still backing it?
Toyota has been an early backer of fuel cells. But, the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai received a tepid response. This may be due to the $50,000 plus sticker price or the lack of refueling stations.
One would think that the commercial failure of Mirai would put Toyota’s hydrogen plans on hold. But, they intend to keep producing the cars, perhaps with slight updates. As reported by the LA Times, Toyota doesn’t want to put all eggs in one basket for the future of automobiles. They will invest in EVs but keep Mirai running in case hydrogen gets big. The other is Toyota has other ideas for a hydrogen fuel cell that goes beyond cars. Mirai is just the public face for hydrogen.
“Toyota won’t be putting all our eggs in one technology basket,” Doug Murtha, Toyota’s U.S. group Vice President for corporate strategy and planning
Hydrogen may be a better fuel for heavy-duty vehicles. Trucks, buses, and forklifts need more power. The current battery tech involves heavy lithium-ion batteries. Powering heavy-duty vehicles with many batteries would add significant weight to these vehicles. A hydrogen fuel cell can be an easier replacement. It would keep the vehicle light.
For commercial vehicles like forklifts and trucks, time wasted in charging equates money. Rapid refueling is efficient and saves costs. Hydrogen-powered vehicles can have a longer driving range than other fuels. Hydrogen-powered trucks are expected to have 500–750 miles range.
Perhaps, this is why even startups like Nikola are betting on hydrogen-based trucks. Hydrogen-powered buses are already plying in various cities. In fact, Toyota is building 100 fuel cell-powered buses for the now postponed Tokyo Olympics. Toyota has tied up with five Chinese firms to develop fuel cells for commercial vehicles in a bid to cut down prices.
Building the supply chain
Toyota is helping develop a “cow to car” fuel supply model in California. This innovative idea solves two problems if it works. It promises clean hydrogen and robust supply. Cows produce methane, a prominent greenhouse gas through belches, farts, and poop. But, methane is also a source of hydrogen.
The plan is to use anaerobic digester on farms to turn animal waste into methane. This methane can be collected and run through a fuel cell to produce hydrogen and electricity.
Collecting the methane won’t even need an additional pipeline. It can be fed into the existing natural gas pipes. The hydrogen would be pumped to the filling stations while electricity can be fed into the grid. The plant though has run into delays. Another plant is coming up to convert waste paper to hydrogen. While this infrastructure would take time to develop, it can potentially provide regular hydrogen supply once set up.
Hydrogen as energy storage for
Renewable energy is great as a clean energy source. But, it has an inherent problem. It is not continuous.
What to do with the energy supply when the sun sets?
The answer is to store the energy in some form during peak production and use it when production is low. Hydrogen can be a storage solution. Renewable energy is used to convert water (could be seawater) to hydrogen. Then, this hydrogen can be used to produce electricity via fuel cells.
Going beyond vehicles, with hydrogen
This is where Toyota is probably eying
the future most. Hydrogen based power can be very useful in non-vehicle projects. Space flight is an important avenue. Hydrogen is the main fuel for space flight. Hydrogen is also more abundant in space. In fact, 75% of our universe is hydrogen. Toyota is working with the Japanese space agency JAXA designing a moon rover, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The rover would have a range of 10,000 km.
There is also interest in hydrogen-powered aviation. It is not clear if Toyota will invest in that.
Maybe not aviation, but Toyota is definitely interested in the sea. Toyota is developing fuel cells for maritime applications. That is a great thing, as commercial shipping contributes to emissions (2.5%). Commercial shipping is the lifeblood of modern trade and it is only expected to grow.
Toyota is also developing a completely hydrogen-powered city in Japan. Named Woven City, this is coming up on a 175-acre area. This futuristic city will be a test case of urban living with autonomous systems, robotics, smart homes, and AI. This is not too farfetched. In sunny, tropical parts of the world, a solar-based plant can turn seawater to hydrogen that powers cities as well as vehicles.
So, what does it all mean?
Toyota is putting its eggs in many baskets.
Years ago when Tesla bet on electric, major companies like VW, BMW were not interested. Now, everyone is eager to get on the EV bandwagon. It is possible that Toyota is the one betting on the future now! A future that has been many times delayed. And herein lies the risk. Is Toyota building a house of cards on a false notion of regular supply of clean, cheap hydrogen?
Can an alternative technological breakthrough make hydrogen fuel cell tech redundant?
Alternatively, breakthroughs may make hydrogen cheap and widely available. Also, scaling up production and investment on the supply side can solve some of the problems plaguing hydrogen.
EVs may be the future of cars. But, the cities — earthly or heavenly and the buses, trucks, or boats that ply between them would likely be hydrogen-based.