Toyota’s canister helps make hydrogen portable

Hydrogen has long been presented as the solution for cleaning up road transport. When used in fuel cells, the only emissions resulting from its use are water and it eliminates the slow charging problem of battery electric vehicles. It has also been offered as a replacement for everything from natural gas supplies to laptop computer batteries.

Toyota has pushed for hydrogen technology and worked to develop vehicles and infrastructure for this purpose. The company’s latest efforts involve a portable hydrogen canister – allowing you to take hydrogen on the go!

Troubleshooting storage and shipping issues

Portable hydrogen canisters weigh only 5 kg. Credit: Toyota

Despite all its benefits, hydrogen is a bit of a tricky thing to deal with. H2 molecules are so small that they tend to escape from most containers, finding a way to slip between other molecules. This can lead to problems, such as leaks or hydrogen embrittlement of metal components. Thus, materials must be selected carefully to store hydrogen safely. It is usually stored as a compressed gas or liquid, or in solids in special metallic forms.

The dimensions of Toyota’s attractive round canisters are quite compact – 400 mm in length and 180 mm in diameter. Toyota’s footnotes say they rely on a “high pressure hydrogen tank”, suggesting storage in gaseous form. The target weight of the canisters is 5 kg. Thus, the cartridges can be easily handled and transported by one person, serving as a lightweight energy reserve. They are much lighter than a typical propane tank (~30 kg) or a can full of gasoline (~25 kg).

Toyota discusses cartridge power output with a curious metric. A cartridge should generate “enough electricity to run a typical household microwave for about 3-4 hours.” Given that microwaves typically operate in minutes at a time, one suspects TV dinners at Toyota’s headquarters can be more than a little grueling. Anyway, the press release notes that this is derived from a typical capacity of 3.3 kWh when the cartridge is used with a “typical FC”. [fuel cell] system.”

Although that’s not a lot of power, the total capacity amounts to around 660 Wh/kg. Even given the fancy plastic casing, it’s still better than lithium-ion batteries, which sit around 260 Wh/kg at best.

Toyota has demonstrated a twist-and-lock insertion method for hydrogen canisters that looks really, really futuristic.
Even better if the machine sucks them up automatically like those magic 1980s Macintosh hard drives. Credit: Toyota, Woven City

With such a low total capacity, it is difficult to envisage the use of these canisters for transport applications. Most electric cars have batteries over 70 kWh in capacity; it would take more than 18 such rounds to deliver the same amount of energy. 3.3kWh could run your e-scooter for a decent long ride, but you’d need a fuel cell and a 5kg cartridge suspended one way or another.

Instead, it appears Toyota is looking to cartridges as a way to deliver clean electrical power in a more weight-efficient format than using batteries. The cartridges will be tested in Toyota’s Woven City, a forward-looking “smart city” in Japan that hopes to test new technologies. There they will be used to perform a “wide range of everyday life applications inside and outside the home”. Potential applications could be running hot plates at an outdoor picnic or lighting up a campsite without the noise of a combustion engine generator.

Cartridges take tough, tough fuel and put it into a mess-free, hassle-free format. Credit: Toyota

The general idea is that canisters are an easy way to deliver hydrogen energy in a portable format. Unlike liquid fuels, hydrogen cannot easily be poured from tank to tank. Instead, loading a bunch of canisters makes it easier to move the hydrogen to where it’s needed.

Toyota has high hopes for hydrogen as the fuel of the future. It has invested heavily in hydrogen cars and still lags its competitors when it comes to battery electric vehicles. With these hydrogen cartridges, Toyota “envisions the evolution of hydrogen into a familiar and widely used form of energy.”

It’s hard to see Toyota’s vision of today. Electric vehicles are getting better than ever, and hydrogen production usually involves more fossil fuels than you might think. However, the technology is developing rapidly, from Toyota’s portable canisters to hydrogen pastes and advanced aluminum fuel washers. It remains to be seen if any of them can stop a broader push towards pure electrification.

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