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The Shift From EV to Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Monday, December 29, 2014 - 09:00
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Being a child of the 1980s, one of my favorite movies is “Back to The Future.” The adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) captured my imagination with the ideas of time travel and vehicle technologies that seemed far-fetched yet somehow believable. In one classic scene, “Doc” is rooting through Marty’s curbside garbage can in order to find fuel for Mr. Fusion, a device that was designed to obtain the 1.21 jigowatts (actually gigawatts) of electricity that would be necessary to take them “back to the future.”

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Fast-forward 30 years to 2015, and suddenly some of these ideas don’t seem so far-fetched. Taking something as common as garbage and creating electricity necessary to propel a vehicle can’t be possible can it? Well, how about this for an idea: Take hydrogen gas along with oxygen and put it through a catalyzing membrane to produce voltage with only water vapor and heat as emissions. This very idea is coming to market in Summer 2015 in the form of the Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle or FCV. In fact, Toyota is convinced that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the future of transportation.  Could this really be a sustainable model for the future? We will look at Toyota’s technology and investigate some of the monumental hurdles that fuel cell technology critics claim may make this technology about as realistic as time travel in a Delorean.

Toyota is no stranger to committing to long-term projects. It began its work on electric and hybrid vehicles long before they gained popularity here in the U.S., and judging by their success, Toyota was correct in its belief that HEVs would be a powerhouse.  Similarly, Toyota’s fuel cell research and design began in 1992, and by 1996 it unveiled its first attempt at a fuel cell vehicle, a version of the Rav 4, in a parade in Osaka, Japan. The FCV will be the seventh Toyota Fuel Cell vehicle produced, but the manufacturer feels that it has a product that is now ready for market.

Toyota’s Craig Scott, national manager of Advanced Technology, recently stated: “Today, Toyota actually favors fuel cells over other zero-emission vehicles, like pure battery electric vehicles. We would like to be still selling cars when there's no more gas. And no one is coming to our door asking us to build a new electric car."  

Toyota firmly believes that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will surpass full electric vehicles due to the fact that EVs have a shorter range, high battery costs, long recharging times and require an infrastructure of individual charging stations for each vehicle to be recharged. Toyota claims the advantages of the fuel cell vehicle are many including Zero emissions, a 300-mile range and a three to five minute refueling time. What they don’t mention are the disadvantages to FCVs that have been discussed and argued at length in hybrid and HEV forums and blogs all over the Internet: high expense, short overall fuel cell life cycle, a non-existent hydrogen infrastructure and the fact that FCVs may not be as green of a technology as supporters claim.

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