No matter how dismal the future looks for its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan, Toyota is not giving up or surrendering. Perhaps it is onto something after all. Even if the Mirai ultimately slides into the dustbin of automotive history, the car is helping to lay the groundwork for renewable hydrogen to play a leading role in global decarbonization.
Hydrogen For Fuel Cells, From Biogas
If hydrogen fuel cell mobility catches on here in the US, that would be good news for natural gas stakeholders — or not, as the case may be.
Natural gas is currently the primary source for hydrogen, but money has begun pouring into alternatives. Much of the activity has centered on electrolysis systems, which deploy renewable energy to jolt renewable hydrogen gas from water.
Biogas is another emerging source, and it is overdue for its share of the limelight. Back in 2019, CleanTechnica took stock of the opportunities, including biogas recovery systems from livestock farms as well as landfills and wastewater, with early adopters including New York City, San Antonio, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
As described by the US Department of Energy, biogas-derived hydrogen is almost carbon neutral. Add a carbon capture system, and the potential exists for carbon-negative hydrogen.
Carbon Negative Fuel For Fuel Cell Cars
Back in 2017, Toyota came up with the idea of deploying biogas (aka RNG or renewable natural gas) from agricultural waste in California to produce hydrogen, electricity, and water at its massive Toyota Logistics Center import/export facility at the Port of Long Beach, with the aim of achieving carbon neutral status.
Toyota engaged the US company FuelCell Energy to provide the fuel cell system for the power station, named Trigeneration, or Trigen for short. More pieces fell into place last week, when the startup Anaergia Inc. deployed its subsidiary SoCal Biomethane, LLC, to hook up FuelCell Energy with renewable natural gas for the new Trigen power station, with an assist from the renewable fuel marketer Anew Climate.
According to Anaergia, the Trigen facility will produce 2.3 megawatts of electricity from RNG, enough to supply Toyota’s logistics operation with some left over for the grid. Trigen will also spit out approximately 1,400 gallons of water a day, to be used for washing vehicles.
Meanwhile, the 1.3 tons of hydrogen produced daily by Trigen will be marketed as a carbon negative fuel for the Mirai (more on that in a sec), which provides Toyota with another much-needed selling point for the car.
Toyota also expects to fuel up a fleet of class 8 trucks with its RNG-sourced hydrogen.
Wait, Is It Really Carbon Negative?
Depending on who’s talking, RNG can be considered a carbon negative fuel because it captures fugitive methane emissions from organic matter that would otherwise vent from landfills and wastewater facilities, although that’s not quite how the Energy Department sees it. The carbon picture shifts once the fuel is used and lifecycle emissions kick in.
FuelCell Energy has come up with a system for dealing with that. The company’s carbonate fuel cells are high-temperature systems that operate at 600 degrees Celsius to render methane — the primary ingredient of both fossil gas and RNG — into hydrogen and carbon. The system can also capture carbon dioxide from coal or gas power plant emissions.
Some of the carbon can be used to generate additional power at the site. FuelCell Energy also suggests that the excess can be used in other industrial processes on site, or recycled elsewhere.
Bulk sequestration in underground facilities is another option, but our money is on recycling. Back in 2017, CleanTechnica spotted a system for converting captured carbon into synthetic gas, a field that has since blossomed into the electrofuel industry.
Electrofuel is just one option. In 2016, Ford launched a long term R&D project to make plastic auto parts from captured carbon. That project appears to have shifted focus onto carbon captured by trees, but the list of products that can be made directly from ambient carbon seems to be growing by the minute, including fabrics, diamonds, protein, and vodka.
Never Give Up…
Anyone anticipating the immanent demise of the Mirai might have to stretch their timeline a bit. Earlier this year, Toyota introduced a next-generation version of the fuel cell sedan, with up to $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel as a sweetener.
Even if sales of the Mirai don’t pick up, the car can still function as a rolling advertisement for Toyota’s other fuel cell business. The company began applying its fuel cell know-how to Class 8 trucks back in 2017, aiming to exploit some advantages in that area compared to battery power.
“Fuel cell electric powertrains are advantageous for heavy- and medium-duty transport when compared to other all-electric options, such as battery electric, as they are often lighter to allow for more payload, and they offer more uptime thanks to fueling times that are much closer to conventional diesel powertrains,” Toyota explains.
All that hard work is about to pay off. On April 24, Toyota announced that its fuel cell powertrain for Class 8 trucks passed muster with the California Air Resources Board, providing the company with a powerful angle for marketing the kit to truck makers and operators.
Toyota draws attention to its work with the legacy truck maker Kenworth, which devoted 10 of its T680 Class 8 trucks to a real-world fuel cell demonstration project at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the LA Basin.
“The hydrogen-fueled powertrain kit includes hydrogen fuel storage tanks, fuel cell stacks, batteries, electric motors and transmission, and offers a viable alternative to traditional diesel powertrains used in commercial goods transportation as companies look to transition their fleets to zero-emission vehicles,” Toyota explains.
Toyota’s factory in Kentucky will manufacture the new CARB-certified powertrain. That kind of pulls the rug out from under Daniel Cameron, the state’s Attorney General. Cameron is part of a multi-state, Republican-lead effort that leverages the “woke capitalism” canard to stem the flow of investor dollars into clean tech. However, soon his own home state will begin exporting diesel-killing technology all across the US.
According to Toyota, production of the fuel cell kits will begin later this year.
Earlier this year, an unconfirmed report from the news organization Nikkei also suggests that Toyota will further pull the rug out from Cameron, with plans to produce more than 10,000 electric SUVs per month by the end of 2025 at a new factory to be located, you guessed it, in Kentucky.
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Photo: 2023 Toyota Mirage fuel cell electric car courtesy of Toyota.
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