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Toyota's Mirai Reignites Battery vs. Hydrogen Debate

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On: Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 12:12PM | By: Bill Wilson


Toyota's Mirai Reignites Battery vs. Hydrogen Debate

The future of hydrogen cars took a giant leap forward recently, with Toyota unveiling its first mass production vehicle to use the alternative fuel. The name of the car is the “Mirai”, the Japanese word for “future”. Whether the new model lives up to it name is anyone’s guess. 

The Mirai’s release has reignited an old debate about what type of fuel will power the cars of tomorrow: hydrogen fuel cells or advanced electric batteries. Multi-billion dollar corporations, as well as national governments, are lining up on both sides of the issue. Those who guess correctly stand to reap trillions of dollars in profits. Those who make the wrong choice, however, may find that they have invested huge amounts of capital, only to be on the wrong side of history.

Virtually everyone who lives in the western world is familiar with batteries. They power everything from cellphones to toy cars and planes. The technology behind them is time-tested, reasonably safe, and can be used in ways that minimize its environmental effects. Current problems for battery-powered vehicles are the serious limitations batteries have, such as the following:

• High production costs. The cells needed to power full-size cars are large and complex, meaning that they’re expensive. This tacks a significant added price to the final sticker price, even for cars like the Prius that use both batteries and gasoline in a hybrid design.

• Lack of range. Right now the very best electric cars on the market can travel between 60–100 miles on a full charge. When depleted, they must be recharged, a process that can take hours.

• Restricted life spans. Existing power cells last approximately 100,000 miles before needing to be replaced, at a cost of several thousand dollars.

Of course, it’s always possible that a technical breakthrough may lessen these problems or solve them entirely, But, barring such a change, the future of battery-powered cars looks problematic at best. This is where hydrogen fuel cells enter the picture. They offer advantages like the following:

• Fast refueling times. Replenishing a hydrogen car’s fuel cells takes only minutes, making these cars a better choice for those who drive extended distances.

• Better range. Hydrogen cars exist right now that can travel 300–400 miles when fully fueled. This is three to four times the distance that today’s electric cars can achieve.

• Environmental benefits. Like conventional batteries, hydrogen fuel cells create no greenhouse gasses. Their only byproducts are oxygen and water. This is a dream come true for those who worry about the pollution gas-driven vehicles release into the atmosphere.

As with all things, of course, hydrogen has its limitations, such as the following:

• The processes currently used to create hydrogen are time-consuming and create pollutants of their own, blunting the argument for hydrogen cars based on environmental benefits.

• Building fuel cells requires platinum and other rare metals. This further adds to their costs.

• The widespread use of hydrogen cars would require a network of refueling centers, like the gas stations of today. Building such an infrastructure may cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the US alone.

With both batteries and fuel cells offering their own set of benefits and drawbacks, which option will own the automotive future is anyone’s guess. Either way, those who guess right will enjoy handsome rewards, while those who guess wrong may find they have made a very expensive mistake indeed.

11-19 arm




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