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The ‘Natural Electrolysis’ of Akio-san

The ‘Natural Electrolysis’ of Akio-san

Tessa R. Salazar

Buriram, Thailand—At the Chang International Circuit last Friday where some of the fastest vehicles on the planet raced against time, I found myself with other members of the Asian motoring media seated on stationary bikes, about to pedal like hell for 30 seconds. Not to race, but to harvest the universe’s most basic and bountiful element, hydrogen.

Our Thai engineer hosts from Toyota designed a simple system demonstrating how hydrogen could be extracted from water via electrolysis. Pedaling the bikes generated electric currents, which ran through a large beaker of water. Those currents broke the strong bond between hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen forming bubbles in the beaker. Those bubbles were collected in plastic bags, which were then used to power a small electric-powered lorry.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how we’ll get our fuel to power our hydrogen-powered future cars. Hydrogen is abundant, yes, but they’re almost always bonded with other elements (often with oxygen, hence, water). To get pure hydrogen, we’ll have to literally and figuratively sweat it out.

Even animals will need to “sweat it out” for our future hydrogen needs. After this activity, we were also shown how biogas could be converted to hydrogen. In Thailand, the practice of collecting animal manure to make biogas is growing. The Toyota Daihatsu Engineering and Manufacturing plant in Thailand has a steam methane reforming facility that converts biogas into hydrogen. Every day, around 30 kg of biogas are being converted into 2 kg of pure hydrogen (around 2kg per day). The TDEM plant can potentially store enough hydrogen to power a hundred thousand small FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) trucks.

The GR Corolla that Akio Toyoda/Morizo will use to compete in the Idemitsu 10-hour endurance race is powered by hydrogen produced in the TDEM facility.

I shared with the group that, ironically, animal agriculture has been one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and using animal manure to produce vehicle fuel could indirectly promote animal agriculture.

It was good to know that TDEM also uses other sources of hydrogen, such as food waste (Thailand produces around 17 million tons of them annually, according to an August 2023 report in Nikkei Asia). Energy from this much food waste can supply tens of thousands of FCEV trucks.

Later that day, we were given the chance to interview the chair of Toyota Motor Corp, no other than Akio Toyoda, who for today donned his Morizo suit as he was part of the racing team.

Naturally, I was trying to sort out which questions I would field for Akio-san. He wasn’t a figurehead, but a hardcore petrolhead. He knew his cars inside out. He thought like an engineer. So, I initially felt I had to ask him technical questions. He only had about 15 minutes with the media before his attention would have to shift to the qualifying race.

Would I ask him about the different types of fuel cell designs considered for hydrogen-powered cars, or the safety of the high-pressure hydrogen tanks during collisions? Would I ask the handling of the car, instead, or the operating costs of hydrogen compared with regular internal combustion engines?

But as soon as he started answering questions, I could see he was not his usual jovial self. He wasn’t smiling. Perhaps, he was stressed out over many things that day, not least of them the pressure to qualify in the race, his hard-line stance on Toyota’s multi-pathway approach to new-energy vehicles, and the issue of subsidiary Daihatsu’s procedural irregularities (of which he earlier ordered an investigation).

A number of journalists were already called and asked their questions. As expected, all of them were about the things that seemed to trouble his mind. I was the last one to be called.

I asked him, “You’re 67 but you don’t move like one. You’re as agile as ever. We’ve seen you this morning, and it looks like this won’t be the last we’ll see you on the tracks. Do you plan to break the Guinness World Record of the oldest man to race professionally?”

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I was pedaling this bike as furiously as I could.

He smiled and replied: “First of all, you know my age, thank you very much for knowing about me. It’s not that I’m trying to achieve a world record. But what I’m trying to do is … it’s just that I love cars and I just love driving. When I continue to do what I love, probably that’s the way I get my energy.” He then explained that endurance races help boost his energy, the smiles of the Thai people whom he says keeps him up and makes him feel young, “and gives me energy.”

Electrolysis. Bubbles of hydrogen were forming.

I then told him that, for the record, the oldest man to race professionally was an 89-yearold Swede.

Akio-san burst out laughing: “That means I must continue 20 more years to break the Guinness World Record. I will do my best!”

Combustion. The tension in the room lifted. Akio left us with a smile.

Hydrogen, albeit so difficult to extract, is simply the lightest element in the universe.