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Toyota announces release of hundreds of fuel cell patents

By Brooks Hays
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Toyota announces release of hundreds of fuel cell patents
The Toyota Mirai fuel cell car is displayed at the 2015 International CES, a trade show of consumer electronics, in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 7, 2015. Photo by Molly Riley/UPI | License Photo

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Toyota wants to build a hydrogen society. But first, they want the Toyota Mirai -- the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to be released commercially -- to be a hit on the market. To spur excitement (and to encourage fuel cell innovation, Toyota officials say), the company is releasing some 5,680 patents related to the technology that powers the Mirai.

Of the released patents, 1,970 are related to Toyota's stacked fuel cell technology. Another 290 are related to the company's high-pressure hydrogen tanks, and 3,350 protect the technology involved in Mirai's fuel cell software system. Some 70 patents reveal technology related to hydrogen production and supply.

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The mass release of the patents was announced by Toyota officials at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

"There will be an application process to ensure what the technology will be used for, and then a royalty-free license will be issued that will get us through this initial introductory phase," Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota, told Popular Science.

There are plenty of benefits to fuel cell technology -- chiefly, a hydrogen fuel cell produces only heat and water vapor, no carbon emissions. Additionally, hydrogen is plentiful.

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"Seventy-five percent of the universe is made out of hydrogen," theoretical physicist Michio Kaku told audience members at a presentation on the Mirai. "You want to see hydrogen? Go outside, take a look at the stars, the galaxies, the sun.

"Hydrogen is the most plentiful substance in the universe," Kaku added. "And contrast that now to oil, black gold, one of the rarest of substances on the planet Earth. Nations will kill to secure supplies of oil."

But fuel cells need hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen refueling infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. The company is building refueling stations in California, where the car will first go on sale in the fall for around $60,000. Economists estimate a tank of hydrogen fuel will cost about $50. Toyota says that will get its Mirai drivers a range of 300 miles.

Experts say the patent release isn't really about sharing secrets, but encouraging collaboration; a variety of other automakers are working on similar fuel cell cars. But an immature market and the high cost of research is holding back the industry -- not technology.

In order for the hydrogen fuel cell industry to take off, refueling infrastructure needs to be built up and fuel cells need to become more efficient.

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"I don't think the technology that Toyota has is that groundbreaking," David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's not a patent issue."

"It's historic the amount of collaboration that's occurring," Cole added. "If automakers don't, we're not going to get down the fuel cell road as far and as fast as we like."

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