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Toyota adapting its hydrogen car technology to power exhaust-free heavy trucks

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and even appears first on the Periodic Table. But as a vehicle fuel, it’s pretty scarce. No automaker has worked harder than Toyota to change that, promoting it as the emission-free fuel of the future with its Mirai sedan that’s sold in Japan and in some U.S. markets.

Now the world’s largest automaker is planning to scale the fuel-cell technology used in its mid-size Mirai to power heavy commercial trucks. In a statement Tuesday, Toyota said it’s preparing to test a large-scale hydrogen powertrain in a semi-trailer truck in a feasibility study in California.

“Toyota has long maintained that hydrogen fuel cell technology could be a zero-emission solution across a broad spectrum of vehicle types,” the carmaker said. “The Toyota Mirai will continue to provide a zero-emission driving solution for global customers. A heavy-duty truck-sized fuel cell vehicle creates a potential zero-emission freight transportation solution for the future.”

The statement provides no details on the test program, including how many vehicles it involves, how much Toyota is spending on it, when it starts and what the source of its hydrogen fuel will be. Company spokeswoman Jana Hartline said details will be shared in 2017.

While hydrogen is abundant and emits no carbon emissions when used as a fuel, producing it for industrial uses typically is done by reforming natural gas, which does generate some climate-warming gases. It can be made by splitting water molecules using electricity from wind or solar power, but such methods don’t currently produce substantial quantities of fuel. Hydrogen can also be made from methane vapors that waft from landfills and waste-treatment facilities. Already programs in California and Japan work to do exactly that.

Fuel cells themselves generate electricity in a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, producing only water as a byproduct. They are another form of electric vehicle, but instead of storing energy in a battery that needs to be recharged, fuel cell vehicles generate the electricity.

Tesla’s Elon Musk has been the most vocal critic of hydrogen as an automotive power source, dubbing such powertrains “fool cells.” While his assessment of the technology’s challenges may be accurate, fuel cells also present a potential, long-term competitive challenge to his lithium-ion batteries.

Presumably, Toyota’s California test truck will be a Hino model, the carmaker’s commercial truck subsidiary.

While U.S. efforts to curb carbon emissions may ease up under President-elect Donald Trump, California, Japan, Europe and even China have environmental policies requiring ever cleaner vehicles and power sources.

Toyota’s test plans suggest the company isn’t planning to retreat from offering high-tech solutions to environmental challenges.