Will Toyota turn us from gas…to a gas?

Toyota embraces hydrogen cars
Toyota embraces hydrogen cars   

From its inception at the turn of the last century, the car has undergone a massive number of changes – except for its fuel.

Japanese car giant Toyota is hoping that the launch of its hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai, which went on sale in Japan in late 2014 and will be available in the United States later this year for $57,000, will mark the beginning of the end of our reliance on fossil fuels.

"Gasoline will be depleted sometime in the future, and using gasoline causes issues such as carbon dioxide (emissions) and global warming," Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer at Toyota, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

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"We need to leverage alternative energy in order to response to environmental issues."

According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it is estimated that there are 1.3 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves remaining in major oil fields, and "by 2040, production levels may be down to 15 million barrels per day – around 20 percent of what we currently consume."

How then, does the Mirai – Japanese for 'future' – work? Hydrogen is pumped into the car and stored in its fuel tanks. Air flows into the vehicle via an "intake grill" on its front, and then mixes with the hydrogen in a fuel cell stack. Electricity is created and the vehicle is powered. Toyota say that the only by-product of this process is water.

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Wang Zhao | AFP | Getty Images

Toyota has form when it comes to trying out new fuels for its cars and their Prius – a hybrid vehicle which uses both petrol and electricity – was launched in 1997. Now, it is hoped that the hydrogen fuelled Mirai, with a range of more than 300 miles, will become as prevalent as the Prius.

"Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, an energy source which can be produced from many different types of things," Tanaka said.

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Tanaka went on to say that, "Charging time is very short, about three minutes. High pressure hydrogen has high energy density, and the advantage is to increase driving range for a vehicle."

In cities across the world, a transition to hybrid vehicles and those powered by fuel cells is slowly taking place. In London, for example, eight hydrogen fuel buses operate the RV1 route from Covent Garden to Tower Gateway, with 1,200 diesel-electric hybrids running across the city.

Transport for London say these hybrid buses cut CO2 emissions, "By at least 30 percent compared to conventional diesel buses."

Building up an infrastructure of hydrogen fuel stations will be crucial if Toyota's car is to succeed.

"In Japan, the interim target is setting up 100 stations by the year 2015," Tanaka said. "We are increasing the number of stations to achieve that target," he added.