If you’re in the fuel cell business or the auto business, you might want to visit Toyota’s website. The auto giant has announced that it will give 5,680 patents related to fuel-cell technology away for free.
The patents cover the technology that is critical to the operation of Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell sedan. Anybody who looks at them should be able to build a fuel-cell car or a fuel cell for other uses such as electric power.
This could jumpstart the fuel-cell vehicle industry or at least help it along. I’m sure some other companies like Mercedes, Hyundai, and Honda, which have been working on fuel-cell powered vehicles, will take a look at these. Others that might want to enter the business, such as General Motors and Ford, might also take a look.
Around 70 patents related to the construction of hydrogen fuel-cell filling stations are among those available. I’m sure companies like Plug Power Inc. (NYSE: PLUG), which builds hydrogen fuel-cell fueling systems and fuel-cell power units for commercial and industrial applications, are already taking a look at them.
One has to wonder if this will actually jumpstart the fuel-cell industry at a time of falling gasoline prices. There are still many questions about the future of fuel cells, not the least of which is what will power them. The most exciting of the fuel cell makers, Redox Technologies, believes that natural gas and not hydrogen will be the fuel of choice for fuel cells.
The inventor of Redox’s Cube hot fuel cell technology, University of Maryland Professor Eric Waschman, believes that a car running on his technology would have a farther range on a tank of gas than a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle. The Mirai has a range of around 300 miles on a tank of ydrogen.
The big advantage to natural gas is that the infrastructure to deliver that fuel already exists. Most of the homes and businesses in the United States and Canada are already connected to natural gas lines. Natural gas prices are also falling fast.
Open Sourced Patents
Some people might be wondering why Toyota is giving away patents. Well, the reason is simple: Toyota is in the car business, not the patent business. It wants to expand the market for fuel-cell powered vehicles and hope to get its technology widely adopted.
Toyota is also hoping that it can get a lot of infrastructure for hydrogen delivery built, so it does not have to get into the filling station business as Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) has. Toyota might be counting on large filling station operators such as Kroger (NYSE: KR) and Costco to build its fuel network.
Strangely enough, Tesla might be one of the companies that will take advantage of Toyota’s giveaway, not to power vehicles, but to generate electricity at its supercharger filling stations. Tesla has taken on the huge expense of buying fuel for the drivers of its Model S sedans. At some point, it may need a backup power source or an alternative to the grid such as a fuel cell. Not a smart move at a time when even Tesla boss Elon Musk has admitted that his company will not be profitable until 2020.
The open source patent strategy that Toyota is pursuing has worked for other companies such as Google Inc., which famously gives away its Android operating system. One has to hope that Toyota can fuel the widespread adoption of non-polluting fuel-cell powered vehicles with this strategy. We all need to breathe easier in our cities.
Disclosure the author holds stock in Plug Power and Kroger.