Why Toyota Still Believes in Hydrogen

By
Laurance Yap
Updated:
Oct 2022
Time to Read:
3
min
Toyota has been a big believer in hydrogen. It is now selling the second-generation Mirai, a fuel-cell electric vehicle that uses compressed hydrogen gas in a tank to power a fuel cell, which powers an electric motor. But why does Toyota still believe in hydrogen? Let's find out.
Hydrogen logo on gas stations fuel dispenser
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Different Solutions for Different Needs

We’ve written a lot about Toyota on GreenCars, because while they may be one of the later entrants to the electric-vehicle game, Toyota has likely done more than any other car company to advance the overall cause of more sustainable transportation. The company is a hybrid pioneer, having sold the fuel-sipping Prius hybrid since the late 1990s, and it has proliferated that technology throughout its lineup. Recently, the company unveiled plans for a full lineup of electric vehicles, with the first – the BZ4X crossover – due in dealerships imminently.

One of the most interesting things about Toyota’s approach to sustainability is how it’s invested in many different technologies – hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric, fuel-cell – believing each offers drivers different benefits, and is best suited for different types of driving. Electric vehicles are great, for instance, in the city, but they have their challenges for long-distance driving, thanks to the speed of charging and the overall charging infrastructure.

From the start, Toyota has been a big believer in hydrogen. It is now selling the second-generation Mirai, a fuel-cell electric vehicle that uses compressed hydrogen gas in a tank to power a fuel cell, which powers an electric motor – producing water as its only emission. But in addition to powering fuel cells, hydrogen can also be used in combustion engines – and that’s another area where Toyota has been investing.

Hydrogen Combustion Lets Toyota Adapt Existing Engines

At a recent racing event held at Fuji Speedway in Japan, Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda once again competed in a blue-and-yellow GR Corolla race car, powered by a hydrogen combustion engine. Unlike a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which creates electricity that powers an electric motor, a hydrogen combustion engine looks, sounds, and behaves like a gasoline engine – except for the fact that it burns hydrogen and produces no noxious tailpipe emissions.

The advantage of hydrogen combustion? Faster time to market – because traditional automakers can adapt existing engineering – as well as, likely, an easier deployment of refueling infrastructure, as gas stations could be adapted to serve hydrogen – which can be stored in gaseous or liquid form on-board a vehicle. Hydrogen burns more quickly than gasoline, making powertrains very responsive and exciting.

Disadvantages? Hydrogen gas takes up a lot of space and requires a big tank – or, in liquid form, needs a pressurized and cooled container, which is expensive.

The GR Corolla race car, wearing race number 32, is the second generation of Toyota’s hydrogen-combustion technology, with upgraded power, performance, and reliability. It uses liquified hydrogen, instead of hydrogen gas, as its power source, improving the density of the on-board storage, and doubling the driving range of the vehicle.

Aerial view of hydrogen tank terminal

On Its Way to Commercialization

Toyota is serious about hydrogen combustion: the company plans to use liquified hydrogen in race series by the end of 2022. Koji Sato, the head of Toyota’s hydrogen combustion racing program, has also said the company is about 40 per cent of the way towards commercializing the technology. Indeed, hydrogen combustion is already part of the production development cycle for new vehicles for both Toyota and Lexus.

With Sato’s day job being the global head of Lexus, the development of hydrogen combustion in racing and its deployment in road cars will work in parallel, with plenty of cross-pollination between the two streams – speeding up both processes and improving their results.

Hydrogen Corolla Cross

To show how committed it is to hydrogen combustion, Toyota showed off the Corolla Cross H2 concept – an adapted version of the new, popular crossover, but with a hydrogen fuel tanks installed. Unlike previous prototypes, whose fuel tanks filled the back seats, the Corolla Cross H2 has plenty of cargo space thanks to the latest-generation storage tanks. It is easy to imagine such a vehicle on the road in a couple of years – filling up the way we’re used to, except with zero emissions when driving.

Toyota is one of many Japanese automakers that are investigating and promoting alternative paths to carbon neutrality, pushing back on an industry that has gone all-in on electric vehicles. While all international carmakers are plowing hundreds of billions of dollars to go from gasoline to EV, Toyota is more cautious, saying there may be room for other technology like hybrid, carbon-neutral fuels, and hydrogen fuel cell and combustion technology.

Indeed, at the same event, Nissan entered a race car based on the next-generation 400Z running on carbon-neutral fuel, with a turbocharged V6 burning bio-fuel made from waste like wood chips and cooking oil. Subaru entered a BRZ coupe running synthetic fuel derived from bio-mass. And Mazda even ran a 1.5-liter Mazda2 race car powered by bio-diesel. All were carbon-neutral; none were powered by electricity.

In the end, the GR Corolla driven by Akio Toyoda completed the full 24 hours of the race at Mount Fuji, despite a crash in the middle of the race necessitating a long pit stop. Toyoda said at the end of the race that it was important to continue exploring the options – and that diversified options for going carbon-neutral will be necessary for different kinds of customers.

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