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Toyota puts medal to the metal in fuel-cell race

Posted: 10 Jan 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:hydrogen fuel-cell  automotive 

Toyota Motors has intensified the pressure on rival automakers to put on the road mass-market hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the next two years as it showcased such vehicles at the 2014 CES. Bob Carter, Toyota vice president for automotive sales, presented a standard-model sedan typical of the 'Frankenstein' test cars used to work out the kinks in Toyota's fuel-cell technology. The other was a model, with no actual works inside, intended to illustrate the design features of the 2015 fuel-cell vehicle. Most prominent among these features were two air-intake slots flanking the sides of the car's hood, intended to draw in the oxygen needed for the hydrogen-powered vehicle's fuel mix.

Carter explained that since 2002, when Toyota committed to fuel-cell technology, the Japanese automaker has faced two main difficulties. One is to make the hydrogen-fuelled car, with zero emissions, affordable to the middle-class consumer. The other challenge is the absence of an infrastructure of hydrogen fuel station as ubiquitous as gasoline outlets are today.

Of the first challenge, Carter said that in 11 years, and in more than a million miles of test-driving, Toyota has "dramatically reduced the cost of building a fuel-cell power-train. We have seen a 90% reduction in 2015," compared to the original prototype in 2002. The still-prospective 2015 model fuel-cell Toyota, he said, will go 300 miles on a single (3-5 minute) fill-up.

But where's it going to fill up?

As demonstrated by California, the first state to undertake development of a hydrogen fueling network, this infrastructure has been very slow to emerge. Although former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set a goal to build 100 new hydrogen stations up and down the length of California, Carter noted that by 2015 there will be only 20, and just twice that many by 2016.

However, Carter added that, working with the University of California, Toyota has identified strategic locations throughout the state for hydrogen fueling sites; regardless of sheer numbers, every driver would be no more than six miles from a fill-up. "Using this model, if every vehicle in California were on hydrogen, we could meet their re-fueling needs with 15% of the current number of gas stations. Stay tuned, because this infrastructure thing is going to happen."

A key to the development of the Toyota fuel-cell technology was an advanced boost converter that improved battery efficiency in Toyota's popular hybrid Prius. This improvement reduced weight, space, and "considerable cost," noted Carter. This evolution contributed to Toyota's fuel-cell research. The fuel cell will be housed beneath driver and passenger seats and will be capable of 100 kilowatts of output, "enough to power a house for a week in an emergency."

The car "will be as quiet as a Lexus hybrid," according to Carter. And it will be capable, he added proudly, of speeds up to 100 miles per hour. "This is a regular car with a truly brand-new exotic power-train." Best of all, its exhaust, if all this comes true, will consist of a hydrogen-oxygen by-product called water-and nothing else.

- David Benjamin
  EE Times

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