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The Toyota Mirai.

Toyota wants to change how we power our vehicles. Earlier this month at the big Consumer Electronics Show, the car-maker revealed more details for the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that is powered by combining oxygen and hydrogen, with the only emission being water — no exhaust or fumes.

At Toyota’s CES press conference, theoretical physicist and best-selling author Dr. Michio Kaku gave the Mirai his stamp of approval, calling it a “perfect car.” That generated plenty of discussion and debate, and one of the questions brought up by readers was about hydrogen: Where would Toyota get it from, and how would it be produced?

Daniel Schwartz.

GeekWire caught up with Daniel Schwartz, Director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, to find out. Schwartz said there’s no question that Toyota’s fuel cell technology is legitimate, but he too wondered about where that hydrogen comes from.

He noted that while the Mirai itself is zero emission, the “whole fuel chain” is certainly not because hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels that emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

“That’s how most industrial hydrogen is made today,” Schwartz said.

However, Schwartz said that there is plenty of research going on to figure out how to produce hydrogen with zero emissions and remove carbon from the fuel chain. He noted electrolysis, a process that can split water with electricity to create hydrogen — though where that electricity comes from and how it is produced is a separate energy issue.

Schwartz also described how his colleagues at the UW are working on solar power technologies that use sunlight to create hydrogen and oxygen.

“What could be cleaner?” Schwartz said.

When asked about its hydrogen production, here’s what Toyota told us:

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and can be produced using a variety of technologies. While today, the most production method is steam reformation of natural gas, hydrogen is increasingly produced using renewables such as wind, solar, geo-thermal and bio-waste. We see this technology as a long term solution for mobility and expect long term, sustainable fueling solutions to develop as more fuel cell vehicles hit the road.

Schwartz said that Toyota’s advancements are part of a transportation megatrend that is all about electrification, something he calls an “unstoppable force.”

“Electricity is key for improvements in efficiency, but you have to pay attention to where you draw the box around emissions,” he said.

Schwartz also said he’s interesting in seeing how Toyota and other car-makers figure out how to lower manufacturing costs for their fuel cell vehicles.

“These are real technologies and they work,” he said. “The question is if they can compete in the marketplace in terms of price performance.”

Photo via Toyota
Photo via Toyota

The Mirai, which has a range of 300 miles and goes from 0-to-60 MPH in nine seconds, is priced at $57,000 and will be available commercially later this year in California. Toyota is only selling 700 Mirai cars in the U.S. this year, but is increasing production after seeing strong initial demand.

Beyond the hydrogen production, Schwartz said that Toyota must also develop a way to build hydrogen refueling stations across the U.S. With the help of state grants, Toyota said that it will have 20 stations in California by the end of 2015, and 48 by the end of 2016. There is also work being done on the East Coast, as Toyota is working with Air Liquide to help finance the construction of 12 stations in northeastern states. Toyota said it only takes five minutes to refuel the Mirai.

The fueling station problem is part of a larger hydrogen energy infrastructure issue, Schwartz said.

“You can’t necessarily put hydrogen in the same pipeline you’re using to send gasoline from refineries,” he noted. “If we make hydrogen in a centralized way, do we have to build a bunch of new infrastructure? How do we distribute the hydrogen? This is a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.”

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