Toyota to expand production of hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles

Given hydrogen’s availability and its weight to storage energy quotient, Toyota believes hydrogen powered fuel cells will play a significant role in the clean-energy-powered auto industry in the coming future.

In a significance development, Toyota Motor Corp announced that it plans on increasing investments in its hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles, as design more cost-effective mass-market oriented passenger cars and SUVs; it also plans on implementing the technology into trucks and buses to build economies of scale.

With this plan, Toyota plans on proving its peers, including industry experts, that hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles can be commercially viable.

The testbed for this improved design will be its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) expected to be launched in the 2020s. Toyota, which made the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced “eco-friendly” gasoline-hybrid car in the 1990s, said it can boost the popularity of FCVs in part by making them cheaper.

“We’re going to shift from limited production to mass production, reduce the amount of expensive materials like platinum used in FCV components, and make the system more compact and powerful,” said Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Mirai.

As per a source with knowledge of Toyota’s plans, the automaker plans on introducing FCVs in a phased manner including SUVs, pick-up trucks, with commercial trucks planned for 2025.

Toyota declined to comment on any specific future product plans.

Significantly, it has already developed FCV prototypes of small delivery vehicles as well as large transport trucks based on models that are already plying on the road.

“We’re going to use as many parts from existing passenger cars and other models as possible in fuel cell trucks,” said Ikuo Ota, manager of new business planning for fuel cell projects at Toyota. “Otherwise, we won’t see the benefits of mass production.”

Toyota aims to push the driving range of the next Mirai to 700-750 kilometers, up from around 500 kilometers; it aims to reach the 1,000 kilometers mark by 2025, said a separate source.

The company’s investment in hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles is based on the belief that hydrogen will become a key source of clean energy within the next 100 years. Toyota has been developing FCVs since the early 1990s.

Although, currently Toyota assembles the Mirais by hand, with 13 technicians constructing units into assembly bays, the process yields 6.5 cars a day; in comparison its average domestic daily production is around 13,400 vehicles.

According to Strategic Analysis Inc, which has analyzed the costs of FCVs including the Mirai, it costs Toyota around $11,000 in order to produce each of its fuel cell stacks, which are by far the vehicles’ most expensive part.

In order to bring down costs, Toyota plans on scaling up the production of its global FCV sales to 30,000 units annually after 2020, up from the current 3,000 units. This mass production is likely to result to reduce the cost to $8,000 per stack.

“It will be difficult for Toyota to lower FCV production costs if it only produces the Mirai,” said a source on the condition of anonymity, however, “By using the FCV system in larger models, it is looking to lower costs by mass-producing and using common parts across vehicle classes”.

The Mirai’s high production can largely be attributed to the expensive materials that are used in the vehicle which include titanium, platinum and carbon fiber.

Toyota’s engineers have able to slash costs by improving the platinum catalyst, a key component in the 370 layered cells in the fuel cell stack, which facilitates the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that produces electricity.

“We’ve been able to decrease the platinum loading by 10 percent to 20 percent and deliver the same performance,” said Eri Ichikawa, a fuel cell engineer at Cataler Corp, a Toyota subsidiary that specializes in catalytic converters.

By using reduced quantities of the precious metal, Toyota would be saving around $300 per fuel stack, opined Strategic Analysis based on an estimate that Toyota now uses about 30 grams of platinum per unit.

“By consistently focusing on these issues, we will be able to progressively lower the cost of FCVs in the future,” said Tanaka.

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