The hydrogen fuel cell Hino 700-Series emits only water vapour and has a claimed range of 600km. Picture: SUPPLIED
The hydrogen fuel cell Hino 700-Series emits only water vapour and has a claimed range of 600km. Picture: SUPPLIED

When the internal combustion engine is eventually phased out due to antipollution measures and the fact that fossil-based oil will eventually dry up, electricity will power future vehicles and the two technologies at the forefront of generating that electricity are batteries or fuel cells.

Battery power has taken the lead as the technology to power zero-emission vehicles of the future, but Toyota Motor Corporation is one of the few companies still continuing to develop the less favoured hydrogen fuel cell tech.

One of the company’s latest fuel cell projects is a joint venture between Toyota and its truck-making subsidiary Hino to develop a heavy duty fuel cell truck. The technology mixes hydrogen and oxygen inside a fuel cell stack to produce electricity, which powers an electric motor. Electricity is stored in lithium ion batteries and drive to the rear wheels is by means of a powerful alternating current (AC) electric motor

Like battery-electric vehicles, hyrogen fuel-cell vehicles are locally pollution-free and the only exhaust byproduct is water, but their main advantage is that they have a longer range and don’t need recharging; they are quickly refuelled at a hydrogen filling station in a few minutes.

Toyota and Hino see hydrogen as an important energy source for the future and have spent 15 years working to develop fuel cells in the quest for an environmentally friendly society.

The development truck for the technology is a Hino 700-Series freight carrier heavy duty truck which is fitted with a large capacity high pressure hydrogen tank and claims a range of about 600km on a mixed city and highway driving cycle. This makes it ideal for long-distance transport where operators require a relatively long range between refuelling stops and the ability to refuel the truck quickly, says Hino.

The truck uses two of Toyota’s polymer electrolyte fuel cell stacks that were developed for the recently unveiled Toyota Mirai passenger car.

Creating hydrogen fuelled vehicles has thus far been a challenge due to cost and lack of infrastructure.

While hydrogen is abundant and can be made from water, producing it is expensive and can create pollution. It isn’t a naturally occurring element and has to be created through either electrolysis — which is expensive — or cracking hydrocarbons in a process that produces a lot of CO2 pollution. 

Building a widespread infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations is also an expensive exercise, and as a fuel source hydrogen is roughly three to four times more expensive than diesel. This puts the technology at a disadvantage to battery-powered electric vehicles.

Nevertheless, some truck makers are investing in the technology, including Hyundai which is putting a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell heavy duty trucks on the roads of Switzerland this year.

“Hino and Toyota are determined to be proactive in developments that will resolve the current global environmental issues,” says a Hino spokesperson.

Spurring the joint venture with Toyota was Hino’s internal research which found that heavy duty trucks account for more than 60% of CO2 emissions from commercial vehicles operating in Japan.

Hino’s Environmental Challenge 2050, which was announced in 2017, includes the aim of cutting the average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new trucks and buses by 90% from 2013 levels.

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