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Will Hydrogen Be Toyota’s FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) Cash Cow?

The ToyotaYamaha hydrogen-burning V-8 with its wild exhaust manifold. Image credit -

Will Hydrogen Be Toyota’s FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) Cash Cow?

Toyota is taking a diversified approach to achieve carbon neutrality with hydrogen and it was touted be a winning formula for the Japanese automaker. Where does it leave metalworking tools? 

Earlier this year, Toyota announced its partnership with Yamaha Motors to develop a hydrogen-fueled V-8 engine. The latter added the 5 litre V-8 engine will be based on that in Lexus RC Coupe with modified cylinder heads and fuel injectors.

Some downsides to Hydrogen are that it is highly flammable, difficult to process and store, and the combustion process emits nitrous oxide. The effects of inhaling nitrous oxide include dizziness, unconsciousness, and even death.

Long-term exposure can lead to infertility. Contact with liquid nitrous oxide can cause severe frostbite. Workers may be harmed from exposure to nitrous oxide.

Making Hydrogen Car Engines

Generally, an engine is made up mainly of various metal alloys, so the material used and its components can be recycled. The most important structural materials in 4-stroke engines are cast iron, alloy and structural steels, and aluminium alloys. It also depends on the manufacturer what all material they use.

That is also where the challenge comes in. hydrogen is known to cause embrittlement and cracking in steel, commonly named as hydrogen-induced cracking (HIC). HIC typically occurs in aqueous solutions, as hydrogen can diffuse into the steel matrix, resulting in steel embrittlement and cracking. 

HIC is a major concern in many industries. It is often caused by accidental factors during the forming or finishing process that allow hydrogen to enter the steel matrix. HIC is influenced by three primary factors: material performance, environmental conditions, and stress.

Discovering HIC

Li Xun, a physical metallurgist from Shaoyang, Hunan province discovered the secrete and the principle of hydrogen brittleness in steels when he conducted a research project of seeking out the cause of an accidental crack in aircraft engine shaft. He proved the internal hair-crack in steel was due to the existence of hydrogen in the material.

From the view point of diffusion, solubility and structure of steel, he expounded the relationship of time-temperature-size and hydrogen content in steel products, which produced great impact on the iron and steel technology in the world and made him the acknowledged pioneer in this field.

Under his leadership, scientists in the Institute of Metals Research studied uranium metallurgy, high temperature cast alloys, refractory metals and alloys, measurements of physical properties of materials under high temperature, and rare-earth application in steel and the like.

Characteristics Of Hydrogen

Hydrogen-induced cracking (HIC) refers to the internal cracks brought about by material trapped in budding hydrogen atoms. It involves atomic hydrogen, which is the smallest atom, that diffuses into a metallic structure.

In the case of a crystal lattice becoming saturated or coming into contact with atomic hydrogen, many alloys and metals may lose their mechanical properties. High-strength steels containing chromium and nickel are highly susceptible to hydrogen.

Steels with high carbon content have a greater tendency to hydrogen-induced cracking, while low carbon steels are less prone to this phenomenon.

Back to the subject of automotive manufacturing, the most expensive aspect of production is creating and constructing the fuel cell stack – instead of procuring raw materials. Costs associated with hydrogen station infrastructure must also diminish for an hydrogen uptake to happen.

Hydrogen has a lower energy content per volume compared to other gaseous fuels and this necessitates higher-pressure tanks and low temperatures for compact storage. To meet consumer needs, these vehicles require enough fuel capacity for at least 300 miles (483km) before needing another fill-up – but this requires an increased tank size compared to standard gas-powered vehicles.

Where Does It Leave Automotive?

Just on fuel cells alone, the industry can expect a spike on production costs. For engines where steel is one of the most commonly used material, forgings with a dense structure are more susceptible to hydrogen-induced cracking than castings with a loose structure.

When hydrogen atoms penetrate into the steel, the atomic bonding force between grains decreases, and the steel’s toughness is compromised. The fracture caused by hydrogen-induced cracking is similar to other brittle fractures, and high-strength materials are more susceptible to intergranular fracture. 

Additionally, in low carbon steel, small and incomplete dimples are likely to appear on the small facets along the grain, forming what is known as the “chicken claw pattern.” HIC in welded components can be sudden and poses a serious threat to both people and property.

Eliminating hydrogen in metals is critical. Certain steels or components used under specific conditions must undergo dehydrogenation treatment — for instance, galvanised parts used in aircrafts. Hydrogen removal is also necessary for zinc plating on elastic parts and high-strength steel.

The process of removing hydrogen from parts involves heating. The effectiveness is subject to temperature and holding time.

The higher the temperature and longer the time, the more effective the removal will be. Typically, the component to be treated can be placed in a vacuum oven and treated at a temperature of 200-250°C for 2-3 hours.

Hot oil can also be used to achieve the same hydrogen removal effect as the oven. This method offers the benefit of uniform heating and simpler equipment requirements.

Hence, the question is: how far can Toyota go with this V-8 engine, especially when there is a plethora of factors to be considered. From the cost of equipment which have to be sophisticated enough to handle hydrogen, the need for skilled operators plus the infrastructure required to execute the operations. For V-8 to be converted into a cash cow, it will certainly be a long wait.


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