Monday 19 March 2018

How it all stacks up - or falls down - with the fuel cell

Major automaker to introduce Fuel Cell family saloon

Toyota is expected to introduce a mid-size saloon powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It is expected to look like the FCV Concept
Toyota is expected to introduce a mid-size saloon powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It is expected to look like the FCV Concept
The FCV Concept

Eddie Cunningham Motoring Editor NEXT year will mark another watershed: Toyota will introduce a mid-size saloon powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Away from all the new designs, shapes and technologies some car makers are getting ever closer to what many see as one of motoring's holy grail.

And Toyota is one of them. They're betting on hydrogen powered fuel cells.

Next year, it will roll out such a car in Europe, the US and Japan.

They are calling it the 2015 FC (fuel-cell). It is expected to look like the FCV Concept (pictured) we saw at the Geneva Motor Show.

It can all sound terribly serious and complicated but fuel-cell cars work on an extraordinarily simple premise.

They use a stack of cells that electro-chemically combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity – and that drives the car.

The only thing they emit is water vapour.

I've driven several examples over the years. Some of the models cost around €1m each at the time. They are exceedingly quiet but they faced, and still face, significant obstacles.

Cost is one. They are working on that – big time – and it seems the figure is now more manageable but still prohibitive without subsidisation.

Costs have been whittled down mainly through using less platinum as a catalyst in the electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

Why all the effort? Well, fuel cells can go five times further than electric cars on one 'fill'.

It takes just minutes to replenish the tank with hydrogen – a lot quicker than recharging a battery for an electric car.

The Toyota FC, for example, has a claimed range of 700km (435 miles) on a single tank.

That is competitive with petrol/diesel cars and way in excess of what a battery-powered electric car can do. No range anxiety there.

In Toyota's case, they have also borrowed spare parts from the Prius and other petrol-electric hybrids so development costs are lower.

The fuel-cell car uses hydrogen as fuel, but otherwise it is much like the hybrids – both use electricity to power their motors.

So under the bonnet of the 2015 FC car are much the same components as in the Prius.

For all that it still costs nearly $50,000 to produce a fuel cell propulsion system.

Toyota thinks it has an advantage on costs by using wider, flatter copper in coils that make the motor more powerful. Smaller means cheaper and the automaker says this represents a first 'giant step' towards making fuel-cell vehicles practical for everyday use.

For that to happen, they will have to sell the car at a loss for a long time before the concept is accepted – or rejected.

They've been down this road before. They did the same thing initially with the Prius hybrid. Now the Prius accounts for 14pc of its annual sales.

It just isn't as simple with a fuel cell as we'll see.

It is impossible to say what the Toyota family car fuel cell will cost. In places where there are heavy penalties for gas guzzlers and incentives for emission-free cars – such as California – some experts reckon as little as €35,000.

I doubt it somehow. Maybe double that. It all depends on how much Toyota is prepared to take on the chin.

Another huge obstacle, of course, is the lack of infrastructure.

There are really few hydrogen fuel stations anywhere – and it costs about €1.5m to build just one.

Safety is a further issue as hydrogen is highly flammable element if not handled properly.

So is it feasible or fantasy?

Tesla is a big advocate of battery electrics and is scathing in its assessment of hydrogen power. Its chief Elon Musk is quoted by Reuters as saying that hydrogen is an unsuitable fuel for cars.

He's says: "Fuel-cell is so bullshit. Hydrogen is a quite dangerous gas. It's suitable for the upper-stage rocket, but not for cars."

However, the reality is that the future of motoring is about many and multi-faceted power sources: electrics and fuel-cells are two of many. Global automakers are pursuing many avenues.

We shouldn't get carried away either with this 'zero-emission' car talk.

"Virtually all leave a sizeable carbon footprint – be it in their manufacture and/or the production of their power sources.

The car itself may have no emissions but getting it to that status may have.

Toyota expects tens of thousands of fuel-cell cars will be sold each year a decade from now – they are small, small numbers in a global setting.

It will take a lot of time for the new technology to become acceptable.

That's why they will have to take a medium-term loss in the hope of turning a long-term profit. (Additional reporting: Reuters)

Indo Motoring

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