Toyota’s fuel cell car

Around 16 years ago Toyota unveiled its hybrid electric-gasoline car. Since then it has sold almost six million of them. Now the company is taking a different direction and will start selling cars powered with a hydrogen fuel cell as soon as 2015. The battery car, they say, could only exist as “a niche toy for [rich] eco-snobs”, but is not suitable for the masses.

The fuel cell car will have a range of over 500 km or perhaps as much as 650 km in range driving, and will be refillable in seconds if you can find a filling station. Germany currently has 15.

The price is given as between five and 10 million yen, or about €37,000 to €74,000. Not cheap, but perhaps cheaper than expected as an initial offering.

On the downside, the car is only 30% efficient compared to 70% for battery electric. Hence masses of renewable energy will be required if the cars are to be environmentally friendly. There is a question as to whether sufficient renewable energy will be available for a mass rollout, but the car is more efficient than a conventional petrol model.

Toyota have devoted 500 engineers to the project, so they are certainly serious. Daimler has been working on the concept for some time and expects to have vehicles on the road in 2017, as does a Ford-Nissan alliance. General Motors, Honda and Hyundai are working together on a fuel cell project, Volkswagen has formed an alliance with Canadian fuel cell producer Ballard so as not to be caught out if the technology takes off.

Treehugger took the prototype for a drive. They suggest it will be introduced in California first because of the greater density of refuelling stations. They also suggest that the car could be used to keep your lights for a week as a supplement to a home energy system.

Here’s the structural layout from the Der Spiegel photo gallery:


Here’s how a fuel cell is said to work for the technically minded:


So what do you think? Is fuel cell the way to go?

10 thoughts on “Toyota’s fuel cell car”

  1. Fuel cells: just say no.

    They’re fragile and complex assemblies of rare earth elements that run on hydrogen, which is a b!tch to store and does bad things to many metals (see: hydrogen embrittlement). They’re just a battery, and a particularly poor one at that. Better to use biofuels for heavy hauling (say GVM over 500kg) and existing batteries to move one or two people.

    It’s interesting that they’ve gone for pressurised hydrogen gas, rather than methane or ethanol. It does make the propulsion “carbon free”, but I’m really curious to see how those tanks go in crashes and especially fires. Sure, once the gas escapes it’ll dissipate fast, but while it’s escaping things could be exciting.

    I much prefer the idea of just taking most of the junk out of the car so you can use a smaller battery to move the greatly reduced collection of stuff around. When 90% of the job is moving one person, even a small car and a fat person give a payload ratio of about 15% which is ludicrous.

    The Lit C1 is a 2 wheel, 2 person gyro stabilised enclosed car out that uses an 8kWH battery to give it 300km range, but even that weighs 350kg (because it’s made of steel and has gyros). 8kW means you could fully charge the battery in about 3 hours from a standard power point (in Oz, twice that in the US).

  2. Hydrogen is difficult to produce and store. Most of it is currently produced from natural gas. Sure, it can be produced with renewable energy, but since the renewable energy generates electricity as well, using it to produce hydrogen seems to be a needlessly expensive, efficiency-reducing additional step in the process.

    There may be some applications for which hydrogen fuels cells are better than batteries, but I doubt electric cars are one of them. Particularly if lithium-sulfur batteries live up to their promise.

  3. I believe the high temperature fuel cells which reform a hydrocarbon fuel have a future as they are generally very efficient, up to 70% electrical with usable heat for cogeneration taking it up to 90%.
    These fuel cells are not suitable for cars but I can see them having a place in airplanes, heavy road and rail transport as well as stationary generation.
    From what I am gleaning from recent research, batteries are still improving in storage capacity and coming down in price. I can’t see the point of a fuel cell with only 30% efficiency being used as either primary power or range extender for a car as there are ICE’s already doing better.

  4. Not to mention the question of who funds/maintains the infrastructure for the supply of hydrogen to such vehicles. It wouldn’t be at all cheap to install and maintain and unless the vehicles became common, who would do it?

    Of course if hardly anyone is doing it, then who is going to buy such a vehicle? Chicken and egg.

  5. Thanks for this interesting topic, Brian.

    Moz of Yarramulla @1: I’m with you on this. Less mass = better range/endurance.

    Tim Mackney @2: Thanks for the link to LiS batteries – and ways to overcome their fading.

    Folks: What about a state-of-the-art mini steam engine? There are better ways of confining and controlling live steam than in old-fashioned sheet-steel pressure vessels.
    I don’t want to sound like a knocker but there are better applications for H fuel cells than in personal automobiles.

  6. There are a range of renewable, low impact fuels that can be made using existing technologies from renewable hydrogen and either nitrogen or CO2. These fuels include liquid ammonia and methanol as well as gasoline, diesel etc. Their big attraction is that they can be used in internal combustion engines and turbines with no or little modification. Liquid ammonia can be handled at similar pressures as LPG. The big attraction of these fuels is that they don’t use fossil carbon, offer practical ranges for long distance and overseas travel and don’t need engine replacement to work.
    Of course, direct use of renewable power with or without batteries makes more sense when their use is practical.

  7. Thanks, folks. I guess we should look at transport solutions rather than the standard car.

    The technology commercialised will not necessarily be the best and 500 engineers working for the world’s biggest car manufacturer means this initiative can’t be lightly dismissed. Surely though driverless car systems should allow a range of lighter vehicles to service most personal transport needs without sacrificing flexibility.

    Moz, concerning crashes, one would think the insurance industry will have a view that could be interesting.

  8. Brian, I expect the technology question has been dealt with. So it’d be vaguely interesting to read about, but no more.

    I’m actually more interested in the RWDB view. “the hydrogen economy” is about the only chance the fossil fool industry have of keeping their energy dominance, so I expect some of them to quite loudly favour the fuel cell technology. But their allies on the “angry about everything” side are against anything green and have already been going on about the crash risks of green tech. Which will win?

    Of course, many existing things would be rejected out of hand if they were introduced now (alcohol, cars, marriage…).

  9. Honda have been “testing” Hydrogen Cars in California in “real life” situations for a few years – they are leasing them to the rich and famous.

    It would be interesting to see if the environmental effects of hydrogen production and storage are better or worse than the current fuels.

  10. As you said @7, Brian,

    I guess we should look at transport solutions rather than the standard car.

    A few starting points include looking at tangents from where (a) Cugnot, Daimler and their ilk left the horses out of their horseless carriages, (b) shipbuilders departed from square-rigged sails at various times, ( c) dirigibles, autogyros, Rogallo wings, ekranoplans, hovercraft and scramjets came into existence – and perhaps looking too at where the work of our own late Mr Ligeti might have led. Call it Speculative Applied History if you like. If Toyota can put 500 engineers onto a fuel cell car project, wonder what we would discover or accidently invent if we put FIVE engineers, or even 5 backyard tinkerers, onto each of these departure points to find out where each divergent path might have led.

    There will be plenty of obstruction from the traditional coal, oil, automobile and aircraft producers – they will see almost anything hew or frugal as threats to their profits and, more importantly, to their own personal lifesyles. Dinosaurs adapted very, very slowly – these producers are much the same, even when a new opportunity to become fabulously rich is handed to them on a plate.

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