There they go again. Toyota has suffered a steady barrage of slings and arrows over its commitment to hydrogen-powered passenger cars, but the company just keeps coming back for more. Toyota has just introduced its new GR Yaris car to the racing circuit, following the launch of its Corolla Sport earlier this year, and both of them sport a green H2 internal combustion engine.
Toyota To Hydrogen Skeptics: Lalalalala I Can’t Hear You
To be clear, the GR Yaris and Corolla Sport are not simply racing versions of Toyota’s much maligned Mirai fuel cell car. They are combustion vehicles, not fuel cell electric vehicles. Instead of deploying chemistry to tease an electrical current out of hydrogen, the Yaris and Corolla do it the old fashioned way: they burn it.
“The hydrogen-powered experimental GR Yaris and the Corolla Sport both feature the same G16E-GTS, 1.6-litre, in-line 3-cylinder, turbocharged engine that is found in the award-winning GR Yaris, but with a modified fuel supply and injection system for use with hydrogen as fuel,” Toyota explains.
Other than that, Toyota is leaning on the Mirai to support the combustion venture.
“The hydrogen fuel, fuel tanks and refueling process of the experimental [GR Yaris] vehicle are the same as found in the Mirai, Toyota’s commercially available flagship fuel cell electric vehicle,” Toyota says.
Why — Or Why Not — Burn Hydrogen In A Car?
Why, indeed? The short answer comes from Paul Ronney, a University of California Viterbi School of Engineering professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering:
“First and foremost, internal combustion engines are cheap to make and can easily be modified to run on hydrogen. As with fuel cells, the main waste product is water, not carbon dioxide. Also, unlike gasoline, hydrogen burns well in ‘fuel-lean conditions,’ where there’s a lot more oxygen than fuel. That’s good for fuel efficiency and also vastly reduces nitrogen oxide emissions,” professor Ronney explained in a 2019 USC interview.
If you caught that thing about NOx emissions, that’s a problem in need of a solution. NOx emissions do not occur when hydrogen burns in the presence of pure oxygen, but they are indeed a problem when burning hydrogen in ambient air.
Toyota seems to recognize that hydrogen combustion engines will not be ready for the mass market until the NOx problem is solved, among other obstacles. Nevertheless, the company argues that it’s worth investing in the technology rather than dismissing it out of hand.
“Towards achieving carbon neutrality, Toyota has been strengthening its efforts, such as by aiming to promote the use of hydrogen through the popularisation of FCEVs and numerous other fuel-cell-powered products,” Toyota explains. “By further refining its hydrogen-engine technologies through motorsports, Toyota intends to aim for the realisation of an even better hydrogen-based society.”
“By entering a hydrogen-powered vehicle that uses green hydrogen produced locally in Kyushu, Toyota intends to further strengthen the hydrogen-centered partnerships it enjoys with other industries in Kyushu,” Toyota stated, adding that the company will “contribute to the use and production of green hydrogen, increase energy choice, and thereby contribute to the realization of carbon neutrality.”
“Green Hydrogen” Rising In Japan
Parsing out the language, it appears that Toyota is being careful not to ruffle any domestic energy policy feathers as Japan considers restarting its nuclear program after the Fukushima disaster.
The company is also wary of upsetting overseas trading partners that keep the economy going in a nation that depends on imported oil, gas, and coal for more than 80% of its energy needs.
However, now that green H2 is a real thing, Toyota has spotted an opportunity to pitch the hydrogen society concept more aggressively as a driver of zero emission economic development, with Kyushu serving as the showcase.
As of last summer, Toyota’s own Toyota Motor Kyushu accounted for about 20% of the company’s green H2 supply for the two race cars, through an electrolysis system deploying solar power.
Another 30% comes from the construction and engineering firm Obayashi Corporation, which has been an early green H2 adopter. Back in 2018 the company engaged with New Zealand to deploy geothermal energy as part of a port cleanup effort, and things have been moving along at a nice clip since then.
Last April Obayashi announced the formation of an in-house “Green Energy Division.” It also embarked on a second green H2 venture in New Zealand, and launched a geothermal electrolysis operation in Kyushu, in the town of Kokonoe-machi.
The third source is FH2R, and that’s where things get interesting. FH2R is short for Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field. It is Japan’s green H2 showcase, intended to demonstrate the business case for the hydrogen society. The 10-megawatt facility is supported by Japan’s NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) in collaboration with Toshiba ESS, Tohoku Electric Power, and Iwatani Corporation, which is even more interesting considering that Iwatani’s core business is natural gas.
Built practically in the backyard of the defunct Fukushima nuclear facility, the FH2R plant leverages solar energy for its electrolysis system. Construction began in 2018 and the plant was ready to roll in March of 2020.
Part of the plan is to use FH2R to maximize the use of renewable energy in the region, without relying on battery storage systems.
The other part is to sell green H2 into the local market. The problem is that demand for green hydrogen has yet to hit stride.
In short, though, anyone thinking that Toyota will shut up anytime soon about fuel cell cars should probably think again.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Experimental GR Yaris race car courtesy of Toyota.