As the world’s biggest manufacturer of affordable hybrid and electric cars, it’s no surprise that Toyota is looking for ways to push sales of the Mirai – its three-year-old hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV). Toyota’s chief engineers believe that increasing the number of hydrogen fuel stations will improve sales for hydrogen cell cars, which never quite picked up.
According to Chief Engineer of the Mirai Yoshikazu Tanaka, the sales of hydrogen cars never picked up because of a “chicken or egg” conundrum, with nobody buying FCVs because of the shortage of fuel stations, and the shortage of fuel stations being partially a result of the low levels of ownership.
Toyota is tackling the shortage of hydrogen fuel stations by converting human waste into hydrogen at Fukuoka City’s Central Water Processing Plant. Sewage is normally separated into liquid and solid waste, with the solid waste being disposed of in landfills. Rather than disposing of the solid waste, workers at Fukuoka are adding microorganisms to the solid waste – better known as sludge – and breaking it down to create biogas, which is made up of 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then filtered and water vapor is added, creating hydrogen and more carbon dioxide. After extracting the carbon dioxide one last time, they are left with pure hydrogen, which can be used to power FCVs like the Mirai.
While the technology may not be new, powerhouse car manufacturers like Toyota using it to fuel their cars is. And although the Fukuoka plant currently produces enough hydrogen to power just 65 cars daily, it has the capacity to power 600 cars per day. Taken to wastewater processing plants at large cities around the world, the capacity for hydrogen production could be increased dramatically.
Converting biogas – a byproduct of wastewater treatment – into hydrogen, also reduces the volume of sewage sludge disposed of at landfills.
The Mirai combines hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity, emitting water vapor in the process, making it a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) that does not emit greenhouse gases. Co-director of Hydrogen Pathways Program at UC Davis Joan Ogden tells Quartz that hydrogen cars are the most similar to gasoline cars when it comes to performance, making them a potentially attractive option for consumers looking to convert. In fact, hydrogen fuel cars like the Mirai compare favorably with electric, batter-powered cars when it comes to size, driving range (it has an estimated driving range of around 312 miles or 500 kilometers), and refuel time (five minutes). Its price point, however, is significantly higher than EVs, selling at US $57,500 in the U.S. and 7,236,000 yen (a little over US $70,000) in Japan.
The Mirai had the longest range for a ZEV until this week, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Tesla Model S P100D’s official rating of 315 miles (506.9 kilometers).
In spite of the potential appeal and the growth of ZEV sales, hydrogen refueling stations remain few and far between; in Japan, they only exist in major cities, while there are about 20 in California, most of which are centered around Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.
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