Toyota Schools U.S. On Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Toyota engineers have been driving hydrogen fuel-cell hybrid vehicles around Japan since 2007, so the United States, which deemphasized hydrogen as a vehicle fuel during the early years of the Obama Administration, has some catching up to do.
Toyota's fuel-cell hybrids work just like the company's popular gasoline hybrids, except the internal combustion engine has been replaced with a fuel cell that burns hydrogen, emitting only water vapor at the tailpipe. The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory wants a closer look at these cars, so it signed an agreement with Toyota this month to borrow four of them.
"We're looking at the whole system — from renewable hydrogen production and vehicle fueling equipment to the impact of driving patterns and behavior on vehicle performance," said Keith Wipke, NREL Laboratory Program Manager for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies. "Because the vehicles will be four or five years old by the time our loan period ends, we will be able to observe extended durability and reliability, which are critical to the commercial success of these types of vehicles."
To minimize carbon emissions, NREL plans to fuel the modified Toyota Highlanders using hydrogen made from water molecules split apart using wind and solar energy. Conventional hydrogen is produced from natural gas in a process that emits large amounts of carbon, but recent research breakthroughs have encouraged cleaner hydrogen production.
"These vehicles are emission free, but in most scenarios you still have emissions during the hydrogen production," Wipke said. "If you can make the hydrogen using renewable resources you have the potential for this to be a truly zero-emission fuel source."
Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu cited the method of producing hydrogen as one of the obstacles that led the Obama Administration to emphasize electric vehicles during Obama's first term:
“I always was somewhat skeptical of it because, right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming gas," Chu said in a 2009 interview with the MIT Technological Review. "That’s not an ideal source of hydrogen. You’re giving away some of the energy content of natural gas, which is a very valuable fuel.”
But as Chu left office this year, he was whistling a different tune: "I think in the last year or two, I have been saying this is an important technology and we want to continue to support the research. Fuel cells can be incredibly reliable. There are many fuel cells in buses that have been running in buses for ten year, rock solid. But our target is a $20,000 personal vehicle that can compete with a 45- or even 50-mile-per-gallon internal combustion car.”
In May, the U.S. launched the H2USA program to expand hydrogen infrastructure.

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.