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Beyond mobility: building a cleaner, healthier world with hydrogen

Over her career dedicated to developing zero-emissions mobility running on hydrogen, Jackie Birdsall has worked feverishly towards a hydrogen fuel cell future in which all the negative costs associated with oil are no longer part of the transportation sector. Now a Senior Engineer in the Fuel Cell Vehicle group of Toyota Motor North America Research and Development, her current role focuses on ensuring the performance and compliance of the hydrogen refueling and high-pressure storage systems. Though she often feels more at home in the lab, don’t let this self-described introvert fool you: Jackie Birdsall is a fighter. She predicts a future in which hydrogen’s applications extend far beyond mobility to create greener, healthier environments for communities everywhere.

Jackie Birdsall in front of a Toyota Mirai

Many people see you as a role model for women in the traditionally male-dominated fields of engineering and the auto industry. What challenges did you face as a woman to get where you are today?

Growing up and wanting to enter the automotive industry as a female, whenever the naysayers would try to dissuade me, it only stoked the fire and made me want it more. I think it’s a blessing and a curse being a minority in any industry, because despite the setbacks, it does drive you to be the best you can be and prove that you deserve to be there. It also affords you unique opportunities.

“A huge advantage comes from the way fuel cells are scalable: they can be small enough to power a phone, large enough to power a building, or anything in between.”

As far as being seen as a role model goes, that continues to be a struggle for me because I’m pretty introverted, so it’s easier for me to be in the lab with my computer than being interviewed! As a young woman, I would have loved to have someone to look up to and turn to with questions. We have some examples today with Mary Barra and other powerful women moving up in the auto industry. I’m sure they have gone through similar struggles where it becomes a responsibility to bring up all the women below you, either within your company or throughout the auto industry. That goes not just for women, but for any minority.

What do you think are the main advantages of fuel cell electric vehicles?

The main advantages of hydrogen fuel cells are that they can be refilled in 3–5 minutes and get a range of over 300 miles (in the case of the Toyota Mirai). In that way, the Mirai fits perfectly into our portfolio of zero emission, all electric vehicle options for our customers. For us, another huge advantage comes from the way fuel cells are scalable: they can be small enough to power a phone, large enough to power a building, or anything in between. One example at Toyota is how we have taken two of the Mirai fuel cell systems and put them into a Class 8 semi, that can pull 80,000 pounds of drayage weight in and around the Port of Long Beach.

“Riders prefer fuel cell buses because they don’t smell, they’re quiet and since it’s an electric motor and not a transmission, they’re much smoother in terms of acceleration.”

We call it Project Portal. That truck is currently running real routes with real parts, and in doing so, it has taken one of the diesel semis off the road. We see a future in which all of those semis have been replaced with fuel cells. Imagine what that does for the local community: you reduce the noise pollution by cutting out the loud diesel semis, you reduce air pollution and improve air quality. It’s been proven that people living in these areas have higher rates of asthma and cancer, so what it does for the environment in that area is phenomenal. It also improves the flow of traffic, because it’s an all-electric vehicle that drives better than its diesel counterpart.

So hydrogen fuel cells can deliver far-reaching benefits.

That’s right. We’re also moving towards a fully renewable source of hydrogen that will come from agricultural waste in California to power not only our facility at the Toyota Logistics Center, but also the hydrogen for the semis running out of the Port of Long Beach. That demonstrates another advantage of hydrogen in that it can be renewable and locally-sourced. As a domestic renewable fuel, it takes off the table all the negative impacts that come from having to import energy and rely on sources of energy like oil, which lead to oil spills. We’re an advanced civilization, we’re a culture that can do better and we have the technology to do better — at this point it’s just a matter of getting it done.

Credits: George Kedenburg III

We read in your interview on Jalopnik that you are working on fuel cell vehicles for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Can you tell us about those vehicles?

I was working on the Sora fuel cell bus which we have now officially launched in Tokyo. Our plan is to launch about 100 buses that will run around the Tokyo area for the 2020 Olympics, moving visitors and athletes around using zero-emissions technology.

“Once you drive all-electric, it just seems ridiculous to go back to burning fuel under the hood.”

We wanted to demonstrate all the ways riding in an all-electric bus is superior to a diesel hybrid or compressed natural gas (CNG) bus. For example, fuel cell buses are far superior in terms of drivability and ridership. Riders prefer fuel cell buses because they don’t smell, they’re quiet and since it’s an electric motor and not a transmission, they’re much smoother in terms of acceleration.

Chris Peeples, a board member of a public transit operator testing fuel cell buses in Oakland, told us that riders would wait specifically for hydrogen buses if they knew they were running on certain lines…

Drivers love it, too! They even argue over who gets to drive the hydrogen bus! We’re seeing that right now with Project Portal in the Port of Long Beach. Other drivers will knock on the window of our hydrogen truck and ask, “What are you driving and how can I get that?” (laughs) That’s true with the Mirai, as well. Many of the early adopters bought the car for environmental reasons and to be on the forefront of technology, but once they started driving the fuel cell vehicle they saw that all-electric vehicles are far superior in terms of driving feel. Once you drive all-electric, it just seems archaic and ridiculous to go back to burning fuel under the hood.

Part of your work involves testing the Mirai model in extreme environments. Can you tell us about that?

Credits: Desmond Simon

Our team in the US works on the North American suitability of the Mirai, which means we need to ensure that the vehicle operates well not only in the fair and moderate conditions of Los Angeles where we are based, but also in extreme cold.

To do so, we took it to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where temperatures dip down to -40°F (-40°C) around the ice lakes. We made sure the vehicle could still start up, drive and meet all our customers’ power requirements. At the other extreme, we also took it to Death Valley where temperatures climb to 130–140°F (55–60°C), to make sure the vehicle could still idle and keep the cabin air conditioned for an hour. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience of my life, but it was interesting!

What’s your most exciting memory on a road trip?

Since the vehicle had been in development in Japan for almost 20 years, we had seen many different iterations of the car as we gradually chipped away to get a market-ready vehicle. While driving a new prototype to the local hydrogen station, I turned to my colleague and said, “This is it. This is the car.” Because it felt like a normal car! For us, that moment of realizing we had finally developed a commercial vehicle was very special.

Some people seem to have questions about the safety of hydrogen, even believing that hydrogen cars can explode… How do you respond to those concerns?

That is a question I get all the time, since most people’s first introduction to hydrogen was through the Hindenburg. However, I see people’s safety concerns with hydrogen as a big learning opportunity. My first response is to point out that the vehicle is as safe, if not safer, than any of our gasoline vehicles. We test not only to ensure compliance with the global technical regulation adopted by the UN to ensure the safety and integrity of the compressed hydrogen storage system, but also with our own internal standards that go above and beyond this regulation. Of course, we perform all the safety standard crash testing and NHTSA’s post-crash electrical safety testing. Regulations are in place to ensure the safety of this vehicle.

What improvements can we expect in the coming years in terms of hydrogen mobility?

We’re committed to hydrogen vehicles as part of our portfolio and to expanding our electric vehicle lineup. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a unique opportunity in that it’s very scalable to larger and longer-range vehicles. Specifically, we aim to increase fuel cell efficiency and decrease cost in order to bring it to more customers in the market. Fuel cells offer solutions to all kinds of mobility. I think there are all kinds of opportunities for us going forward in terms of capitalizing on the technological achievements developed for the Mirai and applying it all across our lineup.

Credits: Meriç Dağlı

Going forward, how long do you think it might take for hydrogen vehicles to become as common as battery-electric or gasoline cars?

Even with our global goal of reaching 1 million electric vehicles (BEV and FCV) by 2030, that is still a small market share compared to gasoline vehicles. For that reason, I think it’s going to take a successful demonstration in the early market for hydrogen cars to rival their gasoline counterparts.

“As we move towards a Smart Grid, there is huge potential for what we call the hydrogen economy.”

Other countries like China are creating unique opportunities by driving demand for electric mobility. I think we’ll start to see demand increase as markets develop, especially in heavy-duty. It won’t be as quickly as I would like it to be, but I think our work today will show the world all the potential of this technology. Once people catch on to it, I think demand will take off.

Do you think hydrogen’s applications in mobility, as well as other areas like energy storage, will create exciting new jobs?

Absolutely! I think we’re in such a great place to start to rethink our grid and how we power it. As we move towards a Smart Grid, there is huge potential for what we call the “hydrogen economy”. Hydrogen is an excellent storage medium. Not only that, it’s quite responsive in the way that you can generate hydrogen to match your load. For example, if you have an off-peak renewable generating a lot of excess energy, then hydrogen is a great way to store that energy until it is needed, which helps remedy the peak leveling issues arising as we integrate more renewables into the grid. Not only for established grids, but also for remote systems, hydrogen is an excellent opportunity to store excess energy from renewables. As we move towards renewable energy, every link in the chain offers a great opportunity to educate and train a new workforce. It’s going to require a lot of manpower to implement, maintain and ensure the grid is well-connected.

In three words, how would you describe the hydrogen industry?

Innovative, determined and purposeful. Innovative in terms of the unique applications developed for hydrogen, both in terms of fuel-cell mobility and energy storage. Determined in that hydrogen vehicles are over twenty years in the making, which took a lot of quiet determination to see the industry to where it is now.

“Hydrogen fits into so many parts of that goal of improving our environmental performance.”

Purposeful in that everyone is fighting for a better future That is certainly reflected within our teams at Toyota: from engineering and R&D to marketing and communications, everybody who touches this vehicle is passionate about the technology. I think having a sense of passion in your work helps to drive success. The whole industry shares that common vision and purpose.

What interests you most about hydrogen technology?

Jackie Birdsall at the steering wheel of a Mirai.

Its simplicity: most people may not realize it, but it boils down to a relatively simple chemical reaction. In addition, I’m also excited about its potential impact. I’ve spent most of my career working on a hydrogen passenger vehicle, but the potential for hydrogen fuel cells expands out to every area. For example, through its Environmental Challenge 2050, Toyota plans to reduce its carbon emissions in every aspect. Hydrogen fits into so many parts of that goal of improving our environmental performance. In addition to transportation and energy storage, we recently built hydrogen forklifts at our plant where we build the Mirai, so now we have fuel cells building fuel cells. Eventually, we can even use hydrogen to power the building.