Toyota Logic Deconstructed

Last night I expressed some shock that Toyota is planning a Hybrid for 2027. Today, an article I came across with a brief paragraph on exactly this topic, has lead me to do some more reading.

Gerald Killmann (top Toyota engineer in Europe) explained Toyota’s logic at a recent Paris car show. From an article by TopGear, these are his basic points:

  • There is not enough cobalt in the world to supply the current chemistry for lithium-ion batteries for cars world-wide.
  • Toyota already has a twenty year old nickel-metal-hydride battery factory which has paid itself off. It is crazy to now invest in a new factory when the technology around batteries is changing so rapidly.
  • If you don’t have enough batteries to supply a whole city of fully electric cars, statistics suggest it is better for the environment to make many more hybrids, making the greener option available to more people.

While this all appears to be very logical, it smells fishy to me. Cobalt may become an issue but the comment about changing battery technology would suggest that other ways forward will come to light. I know Australian Scientists are currently working on a sulphur powered battery. And a hybrid car (while greener than a non-hybrid) still uses fuel/diesel and still requires significant maintenance because of all the moving parts. Is Toyota really acting in the world’s best interest or are they enjoying the benefits of the continuing need to service their cars and replace all the failing parts? To refuse to invest in new technology (but instead hold on to a twenty year old factory) is to refuse to admit the future. As I have said before, horse-carriage makers who turned a blind eye to the development of automobiles, went out of business. As P said, Killmann is using logic which was very passable in the decade just gone but which is showing itself now to be outdated.

Toyota (according the article which I read this morning but which I cannot find) is more interested in Hydrogen as a way forward. The unreferrable article suggested that Toyota thought fully electric cars used too many rare earth metals to be environmentally sound and that the cost of installing infrastructure to charge them would prevent the ongoing increase of the market. This argument lead me to do some reading about Hydrogen powered cars. I found a very simply written article on howstuffworks.com. Here are some of the main points I gathered:

  • Hydrogen is one of the simplest and most common elements on Earth. However, it is also one of the lightest. Any “loose” hydrogen on the Earth’s surface immediately floats off into outer space. Hydrogen which remains on earth is bonded to other elements (for example in H2O or water).
  • Therefore, before you can have hydrogen powered cars, you must separate the hydrogen from the other element. In the case of water, you can use a fairly old technology called electrolysis. It is energy intensive and hasn’t been terribly efficient. I can’t find a figure for the efficiency but an article in phys.org from March 2016, noted that researchers had doubled the efficiency by applying a thin copper coating directly underneath the top layer of the platinum electrode. The article also notes: “As the electrodes used in the process {of electrolysis} are not efficient enough, large-scale application is not profitable.” I don’t know whether this has changed since 2016.
  • A Hydrogen car is like a hybrid car where-in the petrol engine is removed and replaced with a tank of hydrogen plus a fuel-cell (which converts the hydrogen into electricity). A small battery is still required to enable increased flow of electricity for acceleration.

So, what do I gather from all this? I see a few problems.

You use a lot of energy separating the hydrogen from the other element. You then need at least as much energy again to condense the hydrogen to a useful volume for use in a car. Where is all this energy coming from? The US energy department notes that their current grid is not a suitable source of power for electrolysis (for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions) because it is largely powered by fossil fuels.

Hydrogen powered cars need to have the hydrogen supplied, just as petrol cars need petrol and electric cars need electricity. How is this infrastructure any less difficult to put in place than supplying the electricity (which might have gone into electrolysis and condensing) directly into the cars?

My understanding is that hydrogen is incredibly flammable. If people are anxious about fires in petrol or electric cars, surely a highly compressed tank of Hydrogen is worse.

P also pointed out that the opportunities for regenerative braking are much more limited in Hydrogen cars because of the tiny battery.

In short… to my way of thinking… hydrogen cars themselves are pretty green and are a cool idea. But are they actually viable? Do the inefficiencies of obtaining the hydrogen outweigh the green benefits of the vehicle itself?

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