Hydrogen (Bomb?)

Creating electricity with a hydrogen fuel cell is a beautiful concept. Hydrogen and oxygen react in an electrochemical process to produce a flow of electrons, and the only byproduct is a small amount of the combined element: dihydrogen oxide (H2O). It’s very clean. The engineers at Toyota believe this is the future of electric vehicles, and the Toyota Mirai is proof of their commitment.

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Toyota is betting that traditional battery-powered EVs won’t succeed, principally due to the time it takes to recharge the vehicle’s battery. Right now, Toyota is describing a fuel cell and its accompanying tank of hydrogen as a “better battery” because it can be refueled in as little as 5 minutes, similar to refueling a gas or diesel vehicle. Of course, a lot of scientists are feverishly working to drastically reduce the time it takes to recharge a battery. An Israeli company, StoreDot, has succeeded with a cell-phone battery prototype claimed to fully recharge in one minute – and they’re working on an EV battery. If the charge-time hurdle is overcome, Toyota might need to reconsider its course, because building an entire infrastructure capable of handling hydrogen is no small task (vs. the electrical grid, which is already in place, albeit with its own issues).

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And then there’s that little issue of hydrogen’s volatility – it ignites more easily than natural gas. Take one look at Toyota’s “hydrogen safety systems” discussion on the Mirai website, and you’ll see ample evidence of how they are addressing this concern.

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It can be said that electric cars don’t actually run on electricity. Coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar, tidal – the energy source used to generate the electricity stored in the battery is what ultimately powers the vehicle.

The same is true of a fuel cell vehicle. Although the Toyota Mirai “runs” on the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, hydrogen doesn’t readily exist as a discrete element in our environment. It has to be manufactured. Ironically, one way that it can manufactured is through electrolysis – using electricity to break water apart into hydrogen and oxygen. However, a majority of hydrogen available today is made by reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam. So in practice, it could be said that a Mirai will actually run on natural gas. And while a fuel cell doesn’t pollute, this process of steam methane reformation is “dirty” – consuming energy, money and creating carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere.

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Toyota is currently the only automotive manufacturer publicly championing fuel cell technology. The rest appear to be focused on hybrid and battery-electric vehicles with the anticipation of improved battery technology. Will Toyota’s hydrogen vision prove to be a hit – paving the way for other fuel cell vehicles? Or will it be a bomb, failing to capture the hearts and minds of potential EV owners?

Looking at the facts, Toyota’s bet appears to be a long shot.

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One thought on “Hydrogen (Bomb?)

  1. Great article Darrell! After reading it I would be in opposition to hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen technology has been kicked around for awhile in the theory stage for the most part. During that time the hybrid electric and the electric vehicle technology has continued to advance and evolve. In my opinion, and as you have said, a hydrogen vehicle is an idea that in reality does not have the infrastructure in the U.S. to support an actual product. They may be able to change the Japanese infrastructure to support it, but here in the U.S. the infrastructure for electric is much easier to develop. And no matter how much Toyota tries to convince its customers that the technology is safe, the first thing most consumers will think of is an H-Bomb.

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