When it comes to Toyota's electrification efforts, what you're most likely familiar with is its hybrid electric vehicles. After all, nearly every single Toyota on sale in the United States comes with an option for a hybrid or is sold exclusively as such like the pioneering Prius. But they haven't devoted their resources to hybrids alone. As part of its multi-solution approach to addressing climate change, the company also delved into the world of hydrogen energy. There are two types of hydrogen drivetrains, the hydrogen combustion engine (which is a more recent development by Toyota) and the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). The former is basically an internal combustion engine that has been designed to combust liquid hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel, while the latter uses hydrogen as a means to generate electricity. Here, we'll be focusing on the FCEV.
Toyota's Hydrogen FCEV Research Dates Back To 1992
Research and development with the first Toyota hydrogen car date back to 1992. Since then, numerous prototypes and one-off demonstration vehicles have been released, but it wasn't until 2014 that Toyota was able to finally release the world's first mass-market FCEV called the Mirai. Now in its second generation, the 2023 Toyota Mirai continues to showcase to the world how Toyota aims to tackle climate change with a multi-solution approach. In fact, FCEVs have numerous advantages over fully electric vehicles (EVs).
How Do Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicles Work?
Hydrogen (H), which is the most abundant element in the universe, only has one electron, which is why it mostly exists with two hydrogen atoms (H₂). Oxygen (O) is also a very abundant element, and once H₂ bonds with O, it becomes water (H₂O) or at least in gaseous form--water vapor. It's that bonding process where H₂ bonds with O that generates the energy to create electricity that drives the electric motors of an FCEV. That bonding process takes place in what Toyota calls its Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM), which is made up of sets of thin plates separated by membranes, while the hydrogen that powers the car comes from a pressurized fuel tank built into the car's chassis.
Why Is Toyota So Keen To Invest In FCEVs?
Apart from Toyota's insistence on a multi-solution approach instead of putting all of its eggs in one basket, FCEVs have numerous advantages over EVs. For one, you fill up a hydrogen FCEV as you normally would in an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. The only difference is that hydrogen stations look and operate slightly differently since you're now dealing with a completely different fuel source, and hydrogen is measured by weight (like kilograms), and not by volume (such as liters or gallons).
There's also the obvious advantage that its direct tailpipe emissions are in the form of gaseous H₂O or water vapor. In some cases, the emissions of an FCEV can condense, which is why the Toyota Mirai has a mode wherein it dumps all the water that has accumulated into the system over time. Toyota even claims that the water dumped by the Mirai is safe for drinking. Lastly, there's the huge range advantage, because the current second-generation Toyota Mirai is EPA-estimated to travel for 402 miles when its 32-gallon fuel tank has been filled up with five kilos worth of hydrogen. This means that the Mirai fuel cell car can travel further than any EV out there right now. In fact, the Mirai even set a Guinness World Record in 2021 when it traveled for 845 miles in a single tank of hydrogen.
Hydrogen FCEVs Still Have A Lot Of Hurdles
While FCEVs have their inherent advantages, there's a reason why most of the world is going all-in on EVs. While hydrogen is abundant, storing it isn't as straightforward as crude oil since it needs to be in a pressurized tank due to the element's unstable nature. In addition, while hydrogen FCEVs don't emit any greenhouse gas from the tailpipe, the production of hydrogen still involves greenhouse gases. Over time, however, as Toyota continues to invest in this field, the production of hydrogen could soon become sustainable as well.
Producing hydrogen also isn't cheap, and if you think hydrogen is an efficient energy source, think again. EVs are surprisingly energy efficient from energy production to when that electricity finally powers down the car's wheels. In fact, the energy loss from power generation to actually powering the vehicle is just 20 percent. For an FCEV, however, the energy loss from hydrogen fuel production to finally reaching the pumps and into your vehicle is a massive 62 percent. That's grossly inefficient energy utilization, and it also doesn't help the fact that 95 percent of hydrogen fuel production is powered by fossil fuels.
Lastly, there's also a reason why the Toyota Mirai has such a large central tunnel eating into the rear-seat legroom. That's because hydrogen fuel takes up a lot of space, and also that added durability that hydrogen tanks require makes them inherently more bulky compared to the fuel tanks of ICEs. This is unlike an EV that comes with a skateboard architecture and the batteries are part of the chassis floor.
Will Toyota's Hydrogen FCEV Efforts Pay Off?
That depends on how Toyota and other manufacturers like BMW manage to continue improving the technology in the years to come. Once the challenges of energy efficiency and hydrogen production have been sorted out, there's a chance that FCEVs will become as popular as EVs. But if there's one area where FCEVs have a far bigger potential to become mainstream, that would be in commercial vehicle use. Large-bodied trucks will have more than enough spare room to hold the bulky tanks of hydrogen FCEVs whilst still having the ability to haul cargo for long distances. The range of EVs, on the other hand, becomes severely limited when it comes to performing heavy-duty work.