If you’ve been shooting conspiracy theory YouTube videos about Toyota’s secretive Project Portal and how it’s likely an grand experiment to develop a hybrid that runs on our precious bodily essences, I’m sorry to say you’re wrong. Project Portal is a secretive Toyota project, but it’s focused on developing a hydrogen fuel cell-powered big rig truck.
Toyota has partnered with the California Air Resources Board and the Port of Los Angeles to undertake a feasibility study of their new prototype hydrogen fuel cell 18-wheeler. Along with Honda and BMW, the automaker has long experimented with hydrogen fuel cells, and while the technology hasn’t hit the mainstream with passenger cars, this is a fascinating new application for it.
The truck itself is based on a Kenworth T660, with the sleeper cab area replaced with a big box that houses four high-pressure hydrogen tanks and two 6 kWh lithium-ion batteries.
There’s two fuel cell stacks, taken directly from Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell car, and those fuel cells are powering a motor much larger than the 150-something horsepower one in the Mirai. In Project Portal, there’s a motor that makes 670 horsepower and 1,325 lb-ft of torque, roughly equivalent to a normal big rig diesel engine.
The truck is said to accelerate much more quickly than a standard Diesel truck, too, so if any truck drivers see one of these, don’t get lured into racing for pinks.
There’s 40 kg of hydrogen in the truck’s fuel tanks, which will give the truck a range of 150 miles for a full load (60,000 lbs) or 240 miles for a 36,000 pound load. Compared to the base diesel Kenworth truck Project Portal is based on, that’s pretty low. A Kenworth 660 can come with two 120-gallon tanks, and at 5 MPG, that gives a range of 1200 miles.
The tests with the Port of Los Angeles will have a 70-mile radius, and Toyota says they want to get fuel refilling time down to about 30 or 40 minutes, which means it currently takes longer than that. Clearly, these two factors—fuel range and refueling time—will need to improve before fuel cell trucks like these will be really competitive.
There’s also the issue of a lack of any sort of hydrogen infrastructure, the same issue that has kept all previous fuel cell cars from any manufacturer mostly holed up in Southern California, around the few existing hydrogen fueling stations.
Fuel cells are interesting technology, and could become a lot more interesting if we find a way to get hydrogen more cheaply and effectively. Though it’s the most common element in the universe, it doesn’t exist in great quantities naturally on earth, and has to be processed from other materials, which takes energy. Maybe we’ll get some kind of massive space-hydrogen extractor and an orbiting, dangling pipeline and hydrogen fuel cells will solve all our energy woes overnight.
Until then, there’s a lot of work to do, but this fuel cell truck seems like a generally good idea. Trucking may be a good way to establish a network of hydrogen stations, if, somehow, they can make fuel cell vehicles as easy and cheap to use as diesel.