Toyota says it’s made several advances to hydrogen fuel cells that will make them significantly cheaper, and will allow the company to sell a car using the low-pollution technology in 2015—years before its competitors.
The car will be expensive: between $50,000 and $100,000. But that’s a big improvement over the million-dollar cost of experimental fuel-cell vehicles in years past.
Toyota will display a concept version of the car—featuring a fuel cell instead of an engine—this month at the Tokyo Motor Show. While the concept car might not outwardly resemble the final car, the fuel-cell system inside will be worth looking at because it will likely be similar to the one in the production version. Toyota says the fuel-cell system is smaller and uses much less of an expensive ingredient—platinum—than earlier versions.
Like a battery, a fuel cell produces electricity. But unlike a battery, it is fed by a tank of hydrogen. Inside the fuel cell, platinum serves as a catalyst that facilitates reactions between the hydrogen and oxygen, producing electricity that powers the car and water vapor that comes out of the tailpipe. And while batteries in electric vehicles can take hours to recharge, a hydrogen tank can be refilled in about the time it takes to fill a conventional gas tank.
However, that advantage is limited for now because there aren’t many places to refuel a hydrogen vehicle. Other automakers, including General Motors, plan to sell fuel-cell vehicles starting around 2020, when costs will likely have come down still more, and when there could be more places to refuel. Several governments are funding hydrogen fueling stations.
Although there are still challenges to making fuel cells for mass-market vehicles, automakers say they could eventually go a long way toward meeting ever-stricter fuel economy and greenhouse gas regulations around the world, as well as requirements that a growing fraction of the cars they sell in places such as California emit no pollution from their tailpipes. Fuel-cell vehicles might be more attractive than battery-powered vehicles because, in addition to faster refueling times, they typically have a longer driving range (see “Why Toyota and GM Are Pushing Fuel-Cell Cars to Market” and “Ford, Daimler, and Nissan Commit to Fuel Cells”).
Fuel-cell vehicles could also let consumers take advantage of cheap natural gas in places such as the United States, since natural gas is the least expensive source of hydrogen. While producing hydrogen from natural gas releases carbon dioxide, the emissions would still be about half as much as those from gasoline-powered cars today.
Toyota has significantly decreased the amount of platinum needed in fuel cells and could ultimately get the amount down to a level that’s comparable to what cars already have in their catalytic converters, says Justin Ward, general manager of powertrain system control at the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, California. Fuel-cell vehicles won’t need catalytic converters because they don’t emit pollutants.
Toyota reduced the amount of platinum by modifying the catalyst to make it more effective (the company isn’t saying exactly how) and by developing precise equipment for applying the catalyst to ensure that none is wasted. “Years ago we were literally taking spatulas and applying the platinum,” Ward says.
Another reason the system is cheaper is that it requires fewer fuel cells to be stacked together than previous concept cars did. Toyota accomplished this in part by improving the design of the cell. The electricity-generating reactions inside the cell take place at two electrodes separated by a membrane that allows hydrogen ions to pass from one side of the cell to the other. Toyota engineers modified the membrane to allow protons to pass more freely, which increases the amount of power that each fuel cell can generate.
Toyota is extending the cars’ range between fill-ups by borrowing technology from its hybrid vehicles. Fuel cells, like conventional engines, are at their most efficient when they run at a steady rate, rather than quickly increasing or decreasing power output during acceleration and braking. So Toyota is adding a battery to the hydrogen car to provide boosts of power for acceleration, reducing the strain on the fuel cell.