Toyota Further Explains Fuel Cell Viability

Part 2 of a multi-part series.

On Tuesday this week Toyota’s world premiere began in Tokyo for its Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) concept which foreshadows a global production version set for a 2015 launch.

Contrary to reports predicting the U.S. won’t see it until 2016, plans for select U.S. regions do begin in 2015, Toyota told us yesterday. And despite doubts held by some, the inventor of the Prius plans to launch a new era of affordable hydrogen vehicles to the entire U.S. and world in a protracted rollout over coming years.

Last week we posted part one of a Q&A with Toyota which partially explained why it’s making a run toward the hydrogen fuel cell end zone.

Here is Toyota’s official stance:

FCVs are powered by fuel cells, which generate electricity from hydrogen, which is not only environmentally friendly and highly energy-efficient, but can also be produced using a variety of readily available raw materials. Thanks to these characteristics, fuel cell vehicles are ideal for achieving sustainable mobility. Therefore, Toyota is striving to make this vehicle technology widely available as soon as possible.

 

Like plug-in battery electric vehicles (BEVs), FCVs rely not on imported oil, but domestic energy – even if initial plans call for natural-gas sourced steam methane reforming (SMR) which the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says is “on par” in greenhouse gas footprint with BEVs sourcing electrons from natural-gas.

Promising talk of fuel cells as zero emission replacements for petrol burners has been heard before including by General Motors and Mercedes-Benz – and actually nine automakers are working toward an H2 future even if others remain unconvinced.

Conceding as much, fuel cell proponents say the light is now at the end of the tunnel.

Not A Lone Voice

We’ll focus on Toyota as a primary source, but what it says is right out of the playbook shared by a raft of policymakers, regulators, global automakers, energy suppliers, among other stakeholders.

These include the California Air Resources Board, U.S. Energy Department, other coalitions, and the UCS.

UCS' Model E FCV. Designed 2011.

UCS’ Model E FCV. Designed 2011.

The UCS has been a source of validation for plug-in advocates as the UCS sees reduced-greenhouse-gas electric transportation as good for the environment. For this same reason, the UCS likes fuel cell transportation and echoes all the same points Toyota makes.

What’s more, the UCS has gone so far as to preliminarily design a planet-friendly fuel cell crossover to model an ideal car. Not to be confused with anything Tesla would dream up, the UCS calls it the “Model E” and it’s designed a Model E battery car as well.

UCS Senior Engineer for its Clean Vehicles Program, David Reichmuth, Ph.D., said fuel cell vehicles don’t mean an either/or question, but they are complementary technologies that can be introduced alongside BEVs.

Reichmuth, who blogs on the subject from Berkeley, says fuel cells work for small cars, and are well suited for commercial vehicles, transit buses, larger work vehicles and family haulers, “but battery electric trucks and buses are also a solution,” he said.

FCV’s range and fast refueling offer no worries and same goes for extending range – either a fill-up of gaseous H2 would be available en route for a 300-mile-range FCV, or added hydrogen tanks can multiply distances for passenger or commercial applications.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists.

This, he said, is a much simpler and cheaper proposition than bulky, costly lithium-ion batteries.

Less convinced is Plug-in America’s Chief Science Officer, Tom Saxton, who offered objections to which we asked Toyota to respond.

Following is a summary along with some commentary.

Point/Counterpoint

Plug-in America: Hydrogen has to come from somewhere. Making it from water requires dumping more energy in electricity than the energy content of the hydrogen that’s produced.

Toyota:

Making hydrogen from water does take lots of energy, conceded Craig Scott, manager for Toyota’s Advanced Technology Vehicles, but that would be the exception, not the rule.

“Today it’s very energy intensive to make a kilogram of hydrogen from water – something on the order of 50-60 kilowatt-hours per kilogram, and that’s not something anybody wants to sign up for right now,” said Scott, who continued: “Unless they’re way far away from a source of hydrogen and that’s their only way to get it – then it turns out to be not a bad way to do it.

“For the most part where cars are going to launch in the early years there will be a relatively inexpensive and clean source of hydrogen nearby,” he said of natural-gas sourced hydrogen.

Toyota's FCV will  be a hybrid using a sub-2-kwh battery and regenerative braking a la Prius, with the FC stack instead of engine.

Toyota’s FCV will be a hybrid using a sub-2-kwh battery and regenerative braking a la Prius, with the FC stack instead of engine.

These first rollout regions, Scott said will include California and the upper East Coast. Plans are underway for new hydrogen fueling stations and localized H2 supply in eight states following California’s Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEV) rules.

These constitute 27 percent of the U.S. transportation market and stand to influence the rest of the country.

Bottom line: Fuel cell vehicles by Toyota, not to mention Hyundai, Honda, and others will start where they are most feasible to grow an industry being jump-started with subsidies just as plug-in cars now rely upon.

Plug-in advocates have also said competition for limited funding between FCVs and BEVs is another concern. BEVs still need much more support and have a long way to go as policymakers are shifting attention onto FCVs.

Tesla has been one of the more outspoken automakers against FCVs, and is threatened by shifting political winds in California it says ought to be “technology neutral” but are not.

Plug-in America: The physics requires this energy loss which can’t be avoided by technological advances. If the hydrogen is produced from natural gas, CO2 is produced just the same as burning the natural gas.

Toyota:

“Making hydrogen from natural gas is not the same as burning natural gas at all,” said Scott. “The steam methane reformer process involves injecting high pressure steam into natural gas to separate H2.”

The hydrogen constituents are then cleaned up, he said and this is used in a vehicle.

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Scott acknowledged hydrogen production is only 50-60 percent efficient compared to gasoline production at 80-85 percent efficient, but “you have to factor in the total well-to-wheels analysis,” he said accounting for superiority over BEVs as well.

Bottom line: FCVs can deliver 40-45-percent total thermal efficiency.

“That compared to anything else is much better,” Scott said, including BEVs in this sweeping statement.

Plug-in America: Fuel cells require use of extremely expensive metals in the platinum family. Decades of research has found no alternative to this, which will keep fuel cell vehicles prohibitively expensive no matter what sort of economies of scale might come into play.

Toyota:

Scott acknowledged there are replacements for platinum, “none that we like right now,” but otherwise concerns over the precious metal are outdated.

“So yeah, this statement is true of 6-7 years ago,” said Scott. “We have changed the way in which we coat the catalysts with platinum and that has drastically reduced the level that we’re using in the car and significantly reducing the cost.”

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Bottom line: Toyota’s FCHV will use around the amount of platinum now used in catalytic converters in clean diesel cars, and Toyota expects to whittle this down to less than diesel cars require.

Plug-in America: Running on hydrogen means creating a fueling infrastructure that’s just as large and even more expensive than the current gasoline infrastructure.

Toyota:

“Right. So, that’s not true,” said Scott. “Anybody who owns a gas station will quickly tell you that gasoline infrastructure is way overbuilt, that 136,000 stations across the U.S., there’s not even a need for a large fraction of that.”

Scott said computer modeling and case studies in the U.S. and Europe demonstrate fewer stations could serve as many people as needed without long lines.

“One hydrogen station works like a gas station,” Scott said, and initially these could handle maybe 50 cars a day.

“Next generation ones will handle maybe a couple hundred cars and these could be readily scaled to thousands of cars,” he said. “So if you talk about one station that can handle a thousand cars, you’ll have much, much better economies of scale on a per-unit basis if you’re trying to advertise refueling costs versus electric vehicles that need one to one-and-a-half chargers per vehicle.”

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Today battery electric cars are a slim minority and most early adopters charge from home. This is one of the chief advantages BEVs have over FCVs, and, said the UCS’ Reichmuth, the infrastructure – i.e., electric transmission grid – is far more developed.

Today only 10 hydrogen fuel stations exist. California alone plans to have 45 in place by 2016 so no one is asserting anything will happen overnight, but it will happen, they say.

Bottom line: Monies are being allocated for more stations. The value proposition looks feasible to policymakers, and future funding would be justified by future demand while scalability means H2 stations can better expand for potential mass proliferation..

Plug-in America: Hydrogen is incredibly difficult to contain. Those hydrogen molecules are so small they leak out of pretty much every container you can make. This means if you leave your fuel cell car sitting in the garage for a week, you’ll be left with an empty tank. It also making building fueling infrastructure far more difficult and expensive, and imposes more energy losses in storage and transportation.

Toyota:

“Hydrogen is difficult to contain. That’s a true statement,” said Scott of hydrogen molecules. “They’re so small that they leak out of a lot of things, they’re the smallest molecule. That doesn’t mean you can’t contain them, and in fact we do contain them every day in our cars. I drive a Prius as well as a fuel cell vehicle and my fuel cell vehicle sits for 3-4 weeks at a time and I come back and its completely full of hydrogen.”

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Toyota’s proton-exchange membrane (PEM) technology will use gaseous hydrogen, not liquid hydrogen such as BMW used a few years ago which requires an extreme “thermos” to keep it cold. Liquid hydrogen is -423°F (-253°C or 20 K), and is prone to “boil off” Scott said. Stories of people returning after a week to empty cars are true, but such is not the case with cars Toyota intends to launch.

The sedan Toyota is showing uses a pair of “Type 3” plastic containers serially wound with carbon fiber – for strength to hold over 10,000 psi. Toyota’s Highlander-based FCHV-adv uses four tanks that hold 6 total kg of hydrogen. Toyota’s Environmental Communications Manager Jana Hartline said the two larger tanks in the sedan will have more than half the capacity without stating exactly how much H2 will be on board.

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The automaker has already crash tested several of the pending cars to meet SAE regulations for flammable H2. The FCV is designed such that if an accident ruptured a hydrogen line or otherwise broke the system, safety is built in.

A burn-off mechanism that would act like a blow torch is designed-in to vent the remaining hydrogen away from combustible parts of the vehicle in an extreme case. The process can take up to a few minutes.

Exorbitant Cars?

Hartline handled the question on most consumers’ minds.

“Our plan is to bring them to market in a price range that is accessible to the general public,” she said. “‘Accessible to the general public’ does not mean a $150,000 vehicle.”

Hartline cited speculation begun by Automotive News that Toyota would price its first four-seater hybrid fuel cell sedan between $50,000-$100,000 but her tone suggested this may be high, but she revealed nothing definitive.

“Everybody is speculating but we haven’t set a specific number but it is going to be accessible to the general public. We’ve reduced cost on the system significantly over the last few generations,” she said.

Whether this means a manufacturer-subsidized lease deal like Nissan does with its Leaf, or whether a relatively value-priced purchase option will be offered is unknown and Hartline said such questions will be answered closer to launch date.

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At this point in the interview, she shifted the focus on the experience, emphasizing what a great-driving vehicle it is. Toyota has FCV test mules it will be doing consumer test drives with as it works to amp up excitement for a market yet a gleam in the corporate mind’s eye of the automaker that competes as one of the world’s largest.

This week, it released no further info on its FCV concept, Hartline said in an email from Tokyo yesterday, but, “Expect to hear more at CES in January,” she said of the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas in January 2014.

Toyota’s U.S. operations had a hand in its development, and at the U.S. premiere Toyota will share further details.

Meanwhile H2 proponents say they know some plug-in car advocates are unconvinced. This they expect to change even for those who refuse words and charts and say nothing short of seeing is believing.