Searching for a clean alternative to gasoline, automakers around the world have largely focused on battery propulsion and hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But both are only as clean as the source of energy they rely on.
Generating electricity or producing hydrogen using power from coal plants is far from clean. But using renewable power is a different story. And Toyota, which has been focusing its efforts on hydrogen, with products like the new Mirai fuel-cell vehicle, is now lending its support to wind power.
The automaker announced today it is entering a partnership operating out of the city of Yokohama to produce hydrogen that can be used to fuel vehicles like the Mirai.
“A stable supply of CO2-free hydrogen is needed,” Toyota Senior Managing Officer Shigeki Tomoyama said during a news conference in Yokohama.
(Honda, GM discussing fuel-cell production partnership. Click Here for the latest.)
The basic concept behind fuel-cell technology was invented in the 1850s. Fuel-cell vehicles rely on a device called a stack in which hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air to produce a stream of electric current. In turn, that can be used to power the same motors used in an electric vehicle.
Proponents point out that a vehicle like the Mirai can get as much as 300 miles to a tankful of hydrogen, and that the car can refuel in about five minutes, about the same as a conventional gas-powered vehicle but significantly faster than a battery-electric vehicle.
(How do fuel-cells work. Click Here for a primer.)
Not everyone is enamored with the technology. Elon Musk, CEO of battery-carmaker Tesla Motors, likes to call hydrogen cars “fool cells.”
Part of the problem is finding a source for the ultra-light gas. Hydrogen is actually the most abundant element in the universe, but it is only found on Earth in combination with other elements. It can be cracked from carbon-based fuels like natural gas, coal or petroleum or electrolyzed from water. But these methods require energy and can create pollution.
So, there is a push to create renewable methods of getting hydrogen, by using such things as wind or solar power.
The new project Toyota is participating in will be more of a pilot program than a major source of hydrogen for consumer use, but it could demonstrate the idea’s potential. Dubbed Hama Wing, it will operate in the coastal metropolis of Yokahama, a sister city to Tokyo. Hydrogen created there will be compressed and then used to power forklifts at four sites in the area, including a factory, a vegetable market and two warehouses.
The project teams Toyota, two local governments, energy supplier Iwatani Corp., and Japanese electronics giant Toshiba Corp.
The partners claim that by using wind power they can reduce the amount of CO2 generated in the creation of a hydrogen supply by 80%.
Using renewable energy may also enable the broader production and distribution of hydrogen to the general public, as well as commercial users.
Currently, the lack of a production and distribution network is one of the major roadblocks to the mainstream adoption of hydrogen power – though the high cost of fuel-cell technology is another issue.
Toyota recently began selling its Mirai fuel-cell vehicle in the U.S., but like similar products from Honda and Hyundai, the Mirai is only being offered in a limited area in Southern California where a handful of retail hydrogen pumps are available.
California hopes to expand that to 100 or more outlets statewide in the next few years. Similar government efforts are underway in Germany. And, in Japan, officials are pressing to have a hydrogen network in place by 2020 to support a demonstration fleet of fuel-cell vehicles that will be used as part of the Tokyo Olympics.
(Lexus may put luxury hydrogen car LF-FC into production by 2020. Click Here for more.)