BMW and Toyota Plan to Lead Hydrogen Fuel Cells to Commercial Viability

The intensified alliance between Toyota and BMW shines a new light on a technology that has been discussed for decades, but that never quite made it: Hydrogen fuel cells. BMW will get access to Toyota’s fuel cell technologies. This essentially spells the end of fuel cell cooperation between BMW and GM, and we already know the two companies are no longer talking on the subject. Let’s take another look.

Toyota is far ahead with hydrogen fuel cell technology. The company had Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicles (FCHV) on the roads for ten years. In 2009, it “launched” its FCHV-adv, basically a Highlander with the hybrid synergy drive from the Toyota Prius connected to a 90-kw fuel cell stack. A few months ago we had it on a short test ride through the scenic warehouse landscape of Torrance, Calif. Except for an eerily quiet drive, the ride was uneventful.

Toyota-FCHV-5

On a full tank of gas, we could have taken it all the way to San Francisco and beyond – no range anxiety here. Fuel cell vehicles have all the advantages of a battery-operated vehicle, i.e. no emissions (the fuel stack produces water), and nearly none of its drawbacks.

If you want to drive tailpipe emission free, your choices are battery or fuel cell. A fuel cell is basically a battery. Fuel cells and batteries use a chemical reaction to make electricity. When the chemicals in a battery are depleted, you must recharge or throw away the battery. The chemicals of a fuel cell are hydrogen and oxygen. You provide the hydrogen. The fuel cell stack uses free-of-charge oxygen from the air and produces electricity plus H2O – water.

Proponents of the technology say that well-to-wheel, fuel cells involve much lower emissions than batteries. Refilling the hydrogen tank should not take longer than filling up with unleaded. Next stop after 400-plus miles.

Toyota-FCHV-a

Short of one of the rumored battery tech breakthroughs we here of from time to time coming to pass, the only way to extend the range of a BEV (if you don’t want to add an ICE) is by adding more batteries. This quickly becomes an exercise in futility. Each added battery cell means more weight, heavier brakes, a larger traction motor, a stronger body to carry the mass, and in turn even more batteries. And most of all, it becomes insanely expensive.

Not so with fuel cells. Fuel cells can make electricity at weights that are between eight to 14 times less than current batteries. Extending the range of a fuel cell vehicle has negligible impact on its weight.

Like electricity, hydrogen is not a way to make energy, it is a way to transport energy. Hydrogen can be made in the same number of ways as electricity.

And why aren’t we all driving around in fuel cell vehicles by now? There were a number of technical challenges, but as Toyota Chief Engineer Satoshi Ogiso had said last year, the challenges have all been mastered.

The only real problem Ogiso is facing with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is money.

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“For us, the only remaining real issue that stands in the way of fuel cell electric vehicles is mass production cost,” he said.

Current fuel cell technology is big, bulky, heavy and expensive. With enough scale, package size and price can come down considerably. Toyota plans to launch a commercial FCV in 2015. It still will be expensive, the Nikkei figures 5 million yen ($62,000). By 2020, Ogiso plans to have an affordable FCV.


  • Al Bunzel

    This is one of the advantages of Electric Cars. You can power them from batteries or from fuel cells.

    In my opinion, car makers should rather focus on Electric Car development as it does not matter whether the energy source is from a battery of fuel cell. The advantage of that for a car maker is that they are not locked into a type of energy source.

    I’ve even seen ceramic fuel cells ( http://www.cfcl.com.au ) that converts natural gas into electricity. As far as I am aware, there is no automotive version :-(, but I can’t see why it can’t be done.

  • Roy_H

    Al Bunzel; Ceramic fuel cells are very bulky and heavy vs power output. This makes this option even worse than batteries. That is why you see these marketed only for stationary applications.

  • Roy_H

    Well I am amazed at how successful Fuel Cell development has been. Throwing enough government money at it has produced good results. However I still think this is a flop as it is a race between FCVs and BEVs. BEVs will always be cheaper to run and have the very attractive feature of being charged from home. FCVs will keep you going to the oil companies for your fill-up. For short trips around town the BEV is a clear winner. For longer trips the FCV has the appeal of faster fill-up. But how often, and how fast, does it have to be? Lets turn that around and say how fast does charging up your battery have to be.

    Right now the top line Model S can go 250 to 300 miles on a charge and takes 4 hours to fill. No one wants to wait 4 hours during a long trip, but other high power chargers are available for LEAF, i-MiEV etc. that could reduce this to about 30 minutes. 30 minutes is a convenient time to take a break and get something to eat. I maintain this is fast enough. My point is that once batteries are good for 300 miles and can be charged in less than 30 minutes, then FCVs have lost their advantage.

    Batteries are advancing at a rapid pace, so FCVs will have a small window of time to be considered desirable. If you buy an FCV, you will find it obsolete in a few years, and if the government wastes $Bs on paying for fuel stations it will be the worst boondoggle in the industry.

  • Mike Halpin

    I do not want to get into the fuel cell verses battery debate each will play a part as we move away from ICE. vehicles to electric. I personally think that hydrogen is a wonderful element for generating electricity as it can be obtained from a variety of sources. Fuel cells do have advantages over batteries as we can see in the fork lift industry where many of the major companies are pulling out batteries and replacing them with fuel cells because they are more cost efficient!
    Mike H. founder HYDROGENHEADS.

  • John Bailo

    I love this article.

    It reaffirms all the things I’ve been saying why expensive and heavy batteries are a completely unworkable technology.

    It’s like not a single one of their advocates even understand the problem of scaling with distance compared to a hydrogen fuel tank…the drones just swing their arms around wildly and burp some canned script about Hindenburgs (which burned from the diesel fuel, not hydrogen).

    Sanity might be returning. Hydrogen and its subprojects is a technology that can reform our entire planet and economy! Let’s go!

  • alan ward

    hydrogen being less efficient, 50 percent we can make up all the ground with a system that makes hydrogen direct from the sun that is 10 to 16 percent efficient over time time over money over areas add cost. so this is no problem 5* aproximately. example dr sorell nsw university sydney australia, titanium tile ceramic direct with out moving parts,the area stipulated, once sold and payed for the 50% disapears and become attractive, manufacture, and add uses, there and others attempts, are also happening with others, research,costs obsorbed.although i dont know where exactly the efficiecy problem lay,,.lie.

  • Mike Morris

    Very impressive… nice article… I found a link concerning fuel cell technology and municipal waste water treatment plants that produce three value streams which are Heat, Hydrogen, and Electricity! I believe we should pursue this quickly!!

    Video links… paste n copy

    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315

    Also found this Nat Gas / Fuel Cell Hybrid project from Enbridge… Again, Impressive!

    http://enbridge.rawintegrated.com/hybrid/hybrid_complete.html

  • John K.

    Nice how the article does NOT mention that we already have the infrastructure for recharging BEVs (the electric grid), but we do NOT have an infrastructure for liquid hydrogen for filling up FCEVs.

    That is a HUGE cost that the FC proponents will use their lobbyists to force American tax payers to subsidize. That is unnecessary w/BEVs. The US doesn’t have the money to waste on a “hydrogen highway.”

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