Toyota’s battery breakthrough, does it mean they’ll ever abandon fuel cells?

It’s clear that Toyota has for a couple years now downplayed battery electric cars in favor of Fuel Cell vehicles.  Rather than stay invested in Tesla Motors, Toyota sold off their stake, they’ve buried the Toyota Prius Plug-in, did not produce any more of the Gen2 Toyota RAV4 EV, and have instead introduced the Toyota Mirage or Mirai or whatever it’s called.  Whatever it was, obviously something didn’t sit right with Toyota about battery EV’s, and they’ve been dissing the whole concept for some time.

New research released this week has Toyota giving us a little clue into what might be their thinking process, and a tantalizing hint of future battery technology.  The press release (below) talks about how a fortuitous conversation between Toyota researchers led to reusing hydrogen storage technology (for use with fuel cells) to make a Magnesium battery.  This battery should be tons safer than any lithium battery, and also higher energy density.

What’s the Big Deal with Magnesium?
Magnesium metal has long been theorized as a much safer and more energy-dense alternative to current lithium battery technology. Lithium metal, in its natural state, is unstable and can ignite when exposed to air. In order to make lithium metal safe for batteries, ions are taken from the lithium metal and embedded into graphite rods, which are then used in batteries. That lack of actual metal, however, limits the amount of power a battery can store. Magnesium, on the other hand, is a very stable metal with the potential to store much more energy. But until now, research on magnesium-based batteries was limited because a magnesium-friendly electrolyte did not exist.

It is true that lithium metal is flammable, and we now have several examples of EV batteries catching fire in spectacular ways.   Yes, of course, the rate of gasoline car fires is very high compared to electric car fires.  I’ve written several articles along those lines — 200,000+ gasoline car fires per year in the USA alone.  There’s been maybe 5 total electric car fires.

So.. one wonders just why Toyota decided to go with this explanation.  Yes, lithium fires are spectacular.  If what they’re saying about Magnesium is true, it would remove another dangerous aspect to battery EV’s.  But the Lithium-ION process renders lithium batteries relatively safe, depending on various chemistry factors.

This other point raised says magnesium batteries, because they can use a higher proportion of metal, can hold more energy.  That’s something to perk up ones ears and go “hmmm… really?”.  What determines the range of an electric car is the number of kiloWatt-hours of energy that can be stored.  More kWh more miles, generally speaking.

Did Toyota shy away from battery EV’s because they couldn’t, with Lithium ION, deliver enough kWh to deliver enough range at an affordable cost?  And therefore they went with fuel cells?

That doesn’t quite work since fuel cell vehicles are nowhere near “Affordable” but they do at least offer the 300 miles plus 5 minute recharge scenario.  Well, the 5 minute recharge only works if the hydrogen tanks have a high enough pressure, which appears to be a difficulty with current hydrogen infrastructure.

In any case, at the Plug-in 2010 conference I heard a Toyota person explain why the Prius Plug-in had such an anemic 12ish mile electric range.  He explained that Toyota’s goal was to deliver an affordable car in a certain price range, and that meant limiting the battery pack size so as to not drive the cost up too far.

Toyota’s actions since then — essentially canceling all battery EV sales — speaks of thinking that Battery EV’s as currently constituted are not suitable for the public.  Therefore Toyota would rather earn their ZEV credits from hybrids and fuel cells, and that maybe their fuel cell vehicles will eventually develop into a mass market thing.

Toyota could well be missing out on an important big game that’s about to launch.  The age of affordable longer range battery EV’s is upon us, with the Chevy Bolt this year, the Tesla Model 3 next year, and others in 2018.  Toyota has nothing to offer … But what if even 200+ miles for $30-35,000 MSRP is outside Toyota’s range of what they think will work for their customers?

That’s probably enough speculation for now.


CHARGING AHEAD

Toyota Scientists Make Breakthrough on Safer, Smarter Batteries

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (May 4, 2016) — For anyone (i.e. everyone) who’s ever panicked when their mobile device chirped, “low battery,” the future could be far less stressful, thanks to the advanced battery research of scientists at the Toyota Research Institute of North America (TRINA). A new breakthrough involving magnesium batteries may soon open the doors for smaller, longer-lasting batteries for everything from cars to cell phones.

What’s the Big Deal with Magnesium?
Magnesium metal has long been theorized as a much safer and more energy-dense alternative to current lithium battery technology. Lithium metal, in its natural state, is unstable and can ignite when exposed to air. In order to make lithium metal safe for batteries, ions are taken from the lithium metal and embedded into graphite rods, which are then used in batteries. That lack of actual metal, however, limits the amount of power a battery can store. Magnesium, on the other hand, is a very stable metal with the potential to store much more energy. But until now, research on magnesium-based batteries was limited because a magnesium-friendly electrolyte did not exist.

Close Collaboration Leads to Discovery
Enter Toyota principal scientist and chemical engineer Rana Mohtadi. Mohtadi was researching hydrogen storage materials and their application to fuel cell technology; upon hearing her fellow researchers discussing the challenges of developing an electrolyte for a practical magnesium battery, Mohtadi realized her hydrogen storage material might just solve the longstanding problem. With further experimentation and the help of fellow researchers, her theory proved correct.

“We were able to take a material that was only used in hydrogen storage and we made it practical and very competitive for magnesium battery chemistry,” said Mohtadi. “It was exciting.”

Just as exciting as the discovery itself is how Toyota’s culture of diversity and collaboration played a key role.

“The results really speak to the strength in our group,” said Energy Storage Group Manager Paul Fanson. “We try to put people from diverse backgrounds and diverse technologies together and allow them to collaborate. This is a great example of that working very successfully.”

Don’t Toss Your LiPo Just Yet
While it’s easy to get caught up in the potential of a dramatically improved battery, it could take 20 years of research and development before magnesium batteries reach the consumer market. To help move the process along, Toyota’s scientists aren’t keeping their discovery to themselves. Fellow researcher Oscar Tutusaus, who collaborated with Mohtadi on the discovery, said, “We want to make this electrolyte a standard for magnesium batteries… and we want other researchers to develop it further so these batteries can see the light of day.”

A paper detailing their discovery entitled, “An Efficient Halogen-Free Electrolyte for Use in Rechargeable Magnesium Batteries,” was recently published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition (Vol. 54, Issue 27).

About Toyota
Toyota (NYSE:TM), the world’s top automaker and creator of the Prius and the Mirai fuel cell vehicle, is committed to building vehicles for the way people live through our Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands.  Over the past 50 years, we’ve built more than 30 million cars and trucks in North America, where we operate 14 manufacturing plants (10 in the U.S.) and directly employ more than 44,000 people (more than 34,000 in the U.S.).  Our 1,800 North American dealerships (1,500 in the U.S.) sold more than 2.8 million cars and trucks (nearly 2.5 million in the U.S.) in 2015 – and about 80 percent of all Toyota vehicles sold over the past 20 years are still on the road today.

Toyota partners with philanthropic organizations across the country, with a focus on education, safety and the environment.  As part of this commitment, we share the company’s extensive know-how garnered from building great cars and trucks to help community organizations and other nonprofits expand their ability to do good. For more information about Toyota, visit www.toyotanewsroom.com.

 

 

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

One Comment

  1. There are approximately a bazillion “battery break-through” announcements. There are exceedingly few actual break-through batteries. The lab is one thing, production is another. It would be interesting if Toyota were really on to something with the magnesium battery. I suspect it is not.

    But, as you seem to be suggesting, perhaps it is cover just a cover for Toyota to hang up the fuel cell nonsense and get onto EVs in earnest.

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