Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Toyota fuel cells: here they come!

The next era in Toyota's technology development will see the introduction next year of its first hydrogen fuel cell-powered car.

“It's a major, but logical next step for the company, as it builds on the success it has achieved with hybrid over the past 15 year,” according to Karl Schlicht, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Europe.

He is explicit about Toyota's commitment to hydrogen power and the potential of fuel cell vehicles to deliver on the company's ambitions to develop the ultimate eco-car.

Schlicht says: "Our unique hybrid history and experience have proven invaluable for the next big leap. Back in 2010, we promised our first fuel cell car for 2015 and we are fully on track to honour our commitment.”

"Fuel cell is a technology that can secure our concept of personal mobility,” he claimed. “That's because fuel cells combine the strengths of EVs (electric vehicles) and hybrids, with those of conventional cars. That means zero emissions - they only emit water vapour - and full usability; refuelling only takes about three minutes."

Schlicht also highlights that “hydrogen fuel is easy to store, is better at capturing renewable energies than batteries, and can be produced anywhere”.

"Taking these facts into account reinforces how Toyota is convinced fuel cell can deliver our ultimate goal of zero emissions and sustainable transport," he also claims.

The model with which Toyota will pioneer its new technology is the FCV saloon concept, shown for the first time in Europe at this year's Geneva motor show.

Schlicht said the car gives "clear hints" of the design of the production version to be delivered next year, and that with the benefit of a high energy density fuel stack and a maximum 100kW it will have the potential to cover more than 500 miles on a tank of fuel.

Schlicht acknowledges that issues of infrastructure, public awareness and cost need to be addressed. But he does not say how, by whom and when. Nor does he explore the issue of how green is the process of hydrogen production, its likely cost at the “pump”, or how customers of Toyota fuel cell vehicles will address such issues as handling a completely new type of “fuel”. Safety is likely to be a very important issue for all concerned and one that has enormous implications, especially for the motor trade which will have to come to terms with an entirely novel “powertrain”.

Hydrogen “fuel” does not occur naturally and is not an energy source, but an energy carrier. It is most frequently made from methane or other fossils fuels, but it can be produced using energy sources (such as wind, solar, or nuclear) that are intermittent, too diffuse or too cumbersome to directly propel vehicles. Integrated wind-to-hydrogen power-to-gas plants, using the process of the electrolysis of water, are being explored to create and develop process technologies to deliver costs low enough, and in quantities great enough, to compete with traditional energy sources.

The fuel cell was invented in 1842 by Welshman Robert Groves – later Sir Robert Groves – as a device to convert the chemical energy from a “fuel”  such as hydrogen into electricity by means of a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. It has found wide application in space technology endeavours.

Back to Toyota’s Schlicht who does admit: "There is of course a long way to go, as with any game-changing technology, but remember the same was said about hybrid only 10 years ago. Toyota is ready to back and lead this change, so we will be pioneering fuel cell step by step."

This time the company is not working alone, having entered into a partnership with BMW to further fuel cell research and development.

Didier Leroy, Toyota Motor Europe's president, naturally likewise sets out his vision of how fuel cell technology - which itself is a hybrid system - will arrive in Europe.

"Fuel cell technology will take time before it takes off," he claims. "To help that happen we will bring a reasonable number of cars to Europe. The volume will be limited, but they will be visible on the streets."                                                              

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