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.
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.
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.
“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.