Hydrogen. A basic element, plentiful and has been used in a variety of industrial applications for years. The 2016 Toyota Mirai sedan is unique in that it is NOT equipped with a gasoline engine or hybrid system to make it go. The Mirai is a vehicle that uses a fuel cell powered by hydrogen. The main advantages of this system are zero tailpipe emissions – the only byproduct is water vapor; high mileage due to the impressive energy content of hydrogen and the efficiency of the fuel cell; decent driving range – about 300 miles; and fast fueling at the pump (unlike electric batteries) – usually about five minutes.
The major disadvantage is a lack of a national hydrogen refueling infrastructure, which limits its practical appeal geographically. For now, that means the Greater San Francisco area in the United States where there will soon be about 68 hydrogen fueling stations.
So, what exactly is a fuel cell? A fuel cell uses hydrogen as a fuel to mix with air in a chemical reaction to produce electricity that is used to drive the front wheels. The resulting by-product is simple water vapor.
It is important to note that while the Mirai is revolutionary, it is not the FIRST or ONLY hydrogen powered car to roam the streets of America. Honda has quietly offered several versions of its fuel cell vehicle to selected consumers for over 10 years. First as the FCX and now as the FCX Clarity, Honda can certainly be regarded as one of the hydrogen fuel pioneers in the United States. BMW has also had a long history of hydrogen research – which resulted in a limited run of 5-Series sedans in 2006-2007 that ran on hydrogen.
One issue that is often brought up when considering the viability of alternative fuels like hydrogen is the financial cost or plant emissions of the source from which the fuel is produced. While there are several ways this can be reduced – i.e. using renewable power sources like wind and/or solar to produce the fuel, a recent scientific study suggests that even using non renewable power sources, a hydrogen powered vehicle can still reduce the production of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by 50 percent over a similar gasoline powered vehicle.
This year at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show, the Mirai was the ONE vehicle I got to drive. It was my first time driving a hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle and my first time in the Mirai. Quiet, solid, smooth and fuss free, I would have gladly taken this one home. With a driving range of just over 300 miles, I would have ALMOST made it back to Des Moines. With an MSRP of $57,500, it would have been a bit rich for me to own, but definitely worth it. Now about those hydrogen fueling stations…