Our finish line is their start line: The story behind this chicken poop-powered Toyota GR Corolla protecting racing engines' green future
Hans · Jan 30, 2024 04:10 PM
Thailand’s 10-hour Idemitsu Super Endurance Southeast Asia Trophy is our region’s most interesting race you’ve never heard of. Think of it as the Thai version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but with familiar B/C segment cars – regular cars that make up our region’s motoring landscape.
Once again, Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda participated under his ‘Morizo’ pseudonym. He raced under his self-funded ORC Rookie Racing Team, in the same modified Toyota GR Corolla that burns hydrogen instead of petrol.
ORC Rookie Racing Team is not owned by Toyota, but Akio Toyoda. Unlike the official Toyota Gazoo Racing Team, Rookie Racing’s goal is to race experimental carbon-neutral powertrains until they break, to develop ‘Ever-Better Cars’.
The GR Corolla finished the 10-hour race 55th overall, and 8th in its D2 class, out of a 64-car grid. It’s a commendable finish because the car lost many positions when it was involved in an accident with Thailand’s Redream Team’s Toyota C-HR, requiring lengthy repairs. More importantly, the experimental car raced for 161 laps with zero breakdowns.
While others see the finish line as the end of the race, ORC Rookie Racing sees the finish line as their starting line, as this is still an under-development technology, not just for the car, but also for hydrogen generation, refueling, storage, and transport solutions. The goal is to make everything cheaper, smaller, and lighter, and they cannot do it alone. More on that later.
The source of Akio’s GR Corolla’s hydrogen fuel cannot be greener – animal farm manure. To be specific, it’s biogas extracted from chicken sh*t.
Vertical integration is a buzzword in today’s automotive industry, but the Thai conglomerate CP Group, one of world’s largest food companies, has been doing vertical integration with food tech for decades. CP is the BYD and Hyundai of the food world.
From the manufacturing of chicken feed to farming to slaughtering, to retail and restaurants, it’s all CP. They own all the Makro, Lotus’, and 7-11 stores in Thailand.
Now, the group wants to generate its own fuel for its trucks. With a staggering 29 million chickens on its farm, the company estimates that its manure can generate enough biogas to fuel 100,000 small trucks a year. The easiest way to convert naturally occurring methane (CH4) from manure into fuel for trucks is to extract hydrogen (H2) from it, pumping it into fuel cell trucks. How to convert methane into hydrogen fuel is a know-how beyond a food company like CP. In comes Toyota.
Toyota’s top brasses first sat down with the CP Group in October 2022. The partnership materialized in just two months, which is incredibly fast considering the scale of their operations.
"We can't reach carbon neutrality on our own. It must be a group effort, and include other industries beyond automobiles," said Akio Toyoda when announcing the partnership with CP in December 2022.
According to Chairman Akio Toyoda, the first meeting with the CP Group took 3 hours, and they were more interested in Akio as a person, rather than the Toyota President. They spoke on many topics unrelated to the project.
“It felt like the purpose of the discussion was to size up Akio Toyoda as a person. Is he out to serve his own interest, or is he working to make others happy?,” said Akio in an interview shortly after the joint announcement in December 2022.
During his 14-year tenure as President, Akio Toyoda tried to move Toyota to look beyond their obsession with numbers, so they can ‘Produce Happiness for All,’ a task he admitted still needs work, as evident from the recent revelations of gaps in compliance by its subsidiaries Daihatsu and Hino.
One year earlier, Akio Toyoda said at shareholders meeting, "Looking at the (United Nations) 17 Social Development Goals (SDGs) as a set of squares laid out in three rows of six, you will see that the space for the last square is empty. It might be a decidedly arbitrary way of looking at it, but I believe that people’s happiness is the 18th goal.
“I interpret this to mean that only people who seriously strive to realize the (established 17) goals will be able to see a world of the 18th goal.”
Chief Technology Officer Hiroki Nakajima, formerly a chief engineer of the Hilux tasked to see through the waste-to-fuel project, said “In Thailand, if you out into the rural areas, it is beautiful farmland, and people make their living from farming – poultry and pig farming. We can create new energy from things like manure and food waste, and they can make money from it. It is something that everyone in Thailand can benefit from. It was presented as a cyclical system that could benefit other Southeast Asian countries as well, and this could also be true for other emerging markets.”
Toyota has since established a hydrogen generation, transport, and storage infrastructure for CP. Biogas will be extracted from CP’s Chantaburi farm, which has the potential to generate around 80 tons of hydrogen annually, more than enough to setup its own hydrogen refueling station.
The biogas is then transported 220 km away to Toyota Daihatsu Engineering & Manufacturing’s R&D centre in Samut Prakan, where Toyota has built a temporarily facility trial processes to extract hydrogen from the biogas. The same facility also generates hydrogen from waste food collected from TDEM’s cafeteria.
Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) is the method used. SMR is not exactly carbon neutral, as carbon monoxide is still a byproduct, but SMR is currently the most practical approach to extract hydrogen from methane. 97% of the world’s hydrogen are produced this way, mostly in China.
Electrolysers, which use electricity to extract hydrogen from water, are a cleaner method, but it’s very inefficient, requiring 52 kWh of energy to produce just 1 kg of hydrogen, versus SMR method’s 33 kWh. In the mid-term, Toyota says carbon capture technology can be deployed to further clean up SMR’s green credentials but of course, cost will be a lot higher.
The extracted hydrogen is then compressed 70 MPa (700 times more than atmospheric pressure) and the cylinder tanks are then sent back to CP’s vehicle depots. The hydrogen fuel is now powering CP’s fleet of Isuzu fuel cell electric (FCEV) light trucks. Isuzu is a member of of the Toyota-led CJPT, an all-Japan commercial vehicles alliance. Transporting compressed gas is not difficult, as it is not very different from established practices to transport natural and industrial gas.
Meanwhile, happening in parallel is a growing pressure to demonize motorsports, under the pretext of going green. Akio Toyoda challenged his engineers to build a hydrogen-burning engine, demonstrating his conviction that our passion for cars and motorsports should be nurtured even on the path to a greener future.
Hydrogen from TDEM’s Samut Prakan facility was transported 360 km, to the Chang International Circuit, where the Idemitsu Super Endurance Southeast Asia Trophy was held.
Instead of a floor-mounted petrol tank, Akio Toyoda's modified GR Corolla has four 70 MPa carbon fibre tanks mounted behind his driver seat, storing 180-litre of hydrogen (about 12 kg). In race conditions, that’s enough fuel to cover over 600 km. Refueling takes about 5 minutes.
At last year’s Super Taikyu Fuji 24 Hours, Toyota raced a liquid-hydrogen-powered GR Corolla which can be refueled in just 1.5 minutes. It’s also capable of consecutive refueling. However, for the Thailand race, gaseous hydrogen is used because the goal is to trial locally produced hydrogen, and the SMR facility at TDEM is not able to support liquid hydrogen yet.
Apart from hydrogen technology, CP will also be trialing a fleet of fully electric Hiluxes. These are not production cars, but prototypes that are converted from regular Hiluxes.
Other than Toyota, the CP Group is establishing tie ups with Korea’s Hyundai (BEVs and FCEVs, via its logistics arm Glovis), China’s SAIC (with MG BEVs) and Foton BEV trucks.
CP Group’s belief in a multi-option approach fits nicely with Toyota’s Multi-pathway philosophy to reach carbon neutrality. The customer will decide what’s best for them, engines are not the enemy, carbon is.