Bob Carter, senior vice president of Toyota Automotive, speaking at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show (CES) last week said that “Fuel cell electric vehicles will be in our future sooner than many people believe, and in much greater numbers than anyone expected”. The market and the public might consider this statement to be somewhat overconfident, yet there is much truth in it. Fuel cell powered vehicles use hydrogen to generate electricity, emitting mere water vapor.
Toyota has, in fact, shown innovative steps toward a very hi-tech future at CES. The most significant example is the FCV concept sedan, an electric car running on hydrogen using Fuel Cell technology. The FCV can also boast over a year’s worth of testing on US roads.
The FCV has a range of approximately 480 kilometers, which is equivalent to that of a mid-size car on a full tank of gas while also going far beyond what the current crop of electric vehicles on the market can offer. Meanwhile, the pollution rate is zero and fuel cells can recharge in a much shorter time period, all of which makes them much more practical, offering an altogether superior user experience. Toyota says it is ready to launch the FCV to the market in 2015. It will be initially sold only in California in the areas of San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. The government has already approved a budget of more than USD$ 200 million in funds to build 20 new fuel-cell charging stations, which will increase to 40 in 2016 and a total of one hundred in 2024. The FCV develops the equivalent of 130 HP and accelerates from 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in less than 10 seconds, which is equivalent to the performance of the hybrid Prius. New technologies, however, may sometimes be marred by ‘teething’ issues or development glitches. However, the fuel cell idea behind the FCV is not new.
Fuel cells are actually based on a physical principle discovered in 1839, nearly 180 years ago by William Grove and they have already been amply tested in Apollo space missions. Fuel cells are chemical generators of electricity based on the idea of reverse electrolysis, whereby electric current splits the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. In contrast, in a fuel cell, these two gases react with one another to produce electricity, releasing water vapor. Technological research on fuel cells for focuses on the reduction of size, weight and cost, offering a number of applications for graphite – for the anodes needed to produce the reaction – and rare earth elements. Scandium, specifically, is the most in-demand element to produce fuel cells used to generate electricity from natural gas or from renewable fuels. The largest scandium reservoir was recently discovered in Australia during work at the former Greenvale nickel mine on the outskirts of Townsville in North Queensland.
The idea of using hydrogen to power the electric vehicles was considered almost the norm not long ago, but the market was not ready. Toyota’s FCV prototype represents the culmination of over 20 years of work and investment. Since 2002, Toyota has made a series of test vehicles, significantly, producing them at ever lower cost, design costs have been cut by 95%. BMW is also planning to produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to improve range without having to resort to fossil fuels. Indeed, fuel cell technology is actually targeting hybrids. BMW has signed an agreement with Toyota to share some fuel cell technology. By way of comparison, BMW has recently launched purely electric, zero-emissions, vehicle, the i3, which has a claimed range of about 250 km. Hydrogen fuel cells would enable the i3 to maintain the zero-emission quality but offering much better performance and range values. Hydrogen fuel cells also offer a strategic advantage for the military. General Motors is working with the US Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) to help it reduce its reliance on oil by producing a new hydrogen fuel cell motor for mass production within the next five years. The main issue remains the hydrogen supply, which had discouraged other manufacturers from launching mass produced fuel cell vehicles. Indeed, Volkswagen, Nissan and the poster-boy for electric car performance, Tesla, have remained unimpressed by hydrogen fuel cells. The industry is splitting into two camps. Toyota is very confident that their FCV could become as popular as their gas-electric hybrid model, Prius, the icon of ‘green’ motoring.
The competition between such major industry players as VW, Nissan, BMW and Toyota, nevertheless, suggests that there is a new highly ‘charged’ contest in the future of emission free motoring. It’s a Betamax vs. VHS déjà-vu, but translated to an even greater scale, given the costs and research involved. The naysayers complain that it is much easier for drivers to find an electric socket to plug-in their cars than to find a hydrogen station. Toyota has countered the argument, noting that hydrogen fueling stations would increase thanks to private-public partnerships such as the one formed in California, which explains why the FCV will be offered in that State first. Toyota is determined that the fuel cell will be the prevailing next-generation technology, which will replace the hybrid vehicle. For the record, Toyota has sold almost six million Prius cars around the world and it expects fuel cell vehicles to match that level of success.