Toyota Motor Corporation announced on April 25 the launch of an effort called the Chita City and Toyota City Renewable Energy-Use Low-Carbon Hydrogen Project. According to the company’s press release, the project is intended as a step toward “the realization of a hydrogen-based society spanning the entire region through mutual coordination and all-inclusive efforts.”
For ammonia energy advocates, the announcement had two elements of particular significance. First is the clear indication that Toyota Motor Corporation is embracing ammonia as a hydrogen carrier – if not as a motor fuel. Second is the project’s stated intention to establish a “system in which Aichi Prefecture certifies low-carbon hydrogen objectively and fairly.” A regime of low-carbon certification will incentivize the hydrogen industry to move away from today’s brown (fossil-based) hydrogen production to alternative methods that can be readily integrated with green ammonia production.
The project’s sponsor is the Aichi Low-Carbon Hydrogen Supply Chain Promotion Association, “a body which includes the Aichi prefectural government, companies operating within the prefecture, municipal authorities, and experts.” The Association was established in October 2017. Its long-term plan is captured in the Aichi Low-Carbon Hydrogen Supply Chain 2030 Vision. Aichi Prefecture lies along the heavily populated corridor between Tokyo and Osaka and is the home base of the Toyota Group and a number of the company’s operating units including Toyota Motor Company.
According to the Toyota press release, the 2030 Vision “aims to achieve a hydrogen-based society ahead of the rest of country, leveraging the prefecture’s experience and expertise in monozukuri (all-encompassing approach to manufacturing).”
The project’s implementation team consists of three jurisdictional governments: Aichi Prefecture, Chita City, and Toyota City; the regional electric and natural gas utilities: Chubu Electric Power Co., Ltd. and Toho Gas Co., Ltd.; and Toyota, as represented by Toyota Industries and Toyota Motor Corporation.
The 2030 Vision is illustrated by a graphic that shows how sources of renewable hydrogen will be linked to energy applications. The graphic indicates that Japan’s officially endorsed hydrogen energy carriers – liquefied hydrogen, liquid organic hydride, and ammonia — will play the largest role in the distribution of hydrogen to and throughout the prefecture. Ammonia is explicitly identified as a fuel for utility-scale electricity generation via “mixed ammonia combustion.” “Mixed hydrogen combustion” is also shown, presumably to cover the possibility of the other two energy carriers coming into use.
Although a timeline is provided showing project implementation proceeding through 2050, sources and amounts of investment capital are not disclosed.
The Takeaway Regarding Toyota
Toyota Motor Corporation is the world’s largest car manufacturer and the world’s fifth largest company by revenues — which makes Toyota’s position on ammonia energy an interesting and important question. At first glance, Toyota seems to be fully on board with ammonia energy, with three of the 19 corporate members of Japan’s Green Ammonia Consortium carrying the Toyota identity: Toyota Industries, Toyota Turbine, and Toyota Central Research Institute. This fact needs to be put in context, though. Toyota Industries’ core business is the manufacture of material handling equipment such as forklifts. Its 2017 revenues were ¥1,675 billion ($15 billion). Toyota Turbine is a wholly owned subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corporation that does not publish its financial statistics. But while Toyota Industries’ capitalization is ¥80.4 billion ($731 million), Toyota Turbine’s is ¥0.5 billion ($5 million). Its main products are “micro gas turbines” and related energy management products. Toyota Central Research Institute is chartered as a distinct entity within the Toyota Group. It has capitalization of ¥3.0 billion ($27 million) and 1,000 employees. By contrast to all three of these companies, Toyota Motor Corporation had 2017 revenues of ¥27,597 billion ($250 billion). This makes it something like 15 times the size of Toyota Industries, Toyota Turbine, and Toyota Central Research Institute combined.
And one of Toyota Motor Corporation’s most salient features is its profound commitment to the fuel cell as the preferred power plant for automotive sustainability. Toyota was the first to introduce a commercial fuel cell car (the Mirai in late 2014) and it remains the market leader (albeit with annual sales still in the hundreds of units) in the face of competitive product introductions from Honda and Hyundai. It is a champion of hydrogen fueling station development in a range of jurisdictions, including California where it is leading a project to supply hydrogen fueling stations in the Los Angeles Basin with hydrogen derived from cow manure.
It would be easy to imagine that Toyota Motor Corporation developed its commitment to hydrogen fuel cells without giving ammonia much consideration as an alternative. That is not the case, however. In fact, a search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office database shows that Toyota filed at least one patent application related to the use of ammonia as an automotive fuel. The application, published in 2011, describes an “ammonia-burning internal combustion engine” and an on-board “hydrogen generator for generating hydrogen for ammonia.” This fact suggests that the company’s choice of hydrogen fuel cells to power its “hydrogen-society” car was the product of deep investigation of technology options. It also creates the context for the indication in the press release graphic that ammonia could be used as the method for transporting hydrogen to hydrogen fueling stations. And it frames the fact that Toyota (along with Hyundai) is a partner with Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in a demonstration of ammonia cracking and hydrogen purification technology that could be deployed for hydrogen fueling duty. (Click here for Ammonia Energy’s survey of the topic.)
At the end of the day, Toyota Motor Corporation’s position seems to boil down to this: Ammonia does not have a role as an automotive fuel. But it could very well have a role as the energy carrier that moves hydrogen fuel around the world and into position at your local hydrogen fueling station. From an ammonia energy perspective, this may be prove to be a case of winning the war by losing a battle.