“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” is a slogan manufacturers often use to market their cars. It's meant to highlight the close relationship between their motorsport and passenger vehicle businesses. But while several motorsport innovations have trickled down to road cars, the potential of Toyota's new carbon capture technology remains uncertain.

At the Super Taikyu endurance racing series at the Fuji Speedway in Japan last year, Toyota demonstrated a carbon capture mechanism on a GR Corolla concept with a hydrogen-burning engine. The hunkered-down hatchback had a few secret items under the hood: two special filters and a recovery fluid. Toyota Times reported the news in 2023, but Automotive News picked it up this week. 

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Critics have accused Toyota of being a laggard in the EV race.

Toyota has moved slower than its rivals in the EV journey. Even though its hybrid and PHEV sales are soaring, its BEV business is at a nascent stage. Only one Toyota-badged EV is on sale in the U.S., the bZ4x, and it has underwhelming specs.

These filters contain a ceramic catalyst—found in typical exhaust systems to filter hazardous pollutants from exiting the exhaust—coated with a CO2-absorbing material developed by Kawasaki. The filters capture CO2 from the outside air that gets pulled in every second. One of the two filters is positioned right at the front of the engine compartment, along the path the engine oil takes for lubrication. Kawasaki's absorbent material releases C02 when it's heated up, so Toyota took advantage of this by using the heat from the circulating engine oil to release the C02 into a recovery fluid. The C02 dissolves into the recovery fluid, allowing the absorber to capture more carbon from the air, which is again released into fluid via heat.

Toyota H2 Corolla Carbon Capture 2

Numbers 1 and 2 denote air-absorbing filters while 3 denotes the recovery fluid. Image: Toyota Times 

“Typically, facilities for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere use fans to suck in air and heat to detach the CO2, all of which requires energy. The key aspect of the H2 Corolla’s system is that it uses the existing air intake and heat within the engine,” said Naoaki Ito, the GR vehicle development division project general manager.

The filters don’t require power, just waste heat from the engine to dissolve the captured carbon. That means they can be installed in any vehicle with an engine. It’s unclear if the system can also be engineered to fit into an electric car.

Nonetheless, it has severe limitations. For now, it can only capture 20 grams of carbon dioxide over 20 laps of the Fuji Speedway—although the filters suck 60 liters of air per second. One gallon of gas produces approximately 8,887 grams of CO2, according to the EPA. Hydrogen, on the other hand, burns clean. But the filters do need to be replaced at every pitstop.

Toyota Times reports that the team is working to increase the capacity of carbon capture and automate the filter replacement process. Cars and trucks that can accommodate bigger filters will probably capture more carbon. But it seems like a complicated and costly installment, especially if Toyota has to automate replacing the filters.

 

Even though Toyota has shown a renewed resolve to move towards fully electric cars, its multi-pronged approach towards electrification is still in place. That includes offering customers a variety of powertrain choices: hybrid, BEV, PHEV, and FCEV. This carbon capture technology requires an internal combustion engine, even if it burns hydrogen. That seems counterintuitive at this stage.

We can't dismiss this technology, though. With decades of innovation experience and a reputation for leading in patent filings, Toyota is no rookie. In fact, its lead in hybrid and hydrogen technology was so significant in the past that it opened up thousands of patents for royalty-free use to other automakers.

While its GR division can continue finding creative ways to reduce emissions, the need of the hour is something else. Toyota offers only one pure EV in the U.S., the bZ4x, with an underwhelming 252-mile range and weak fast-charging performance. The company needs a 300-mile variant of the bZ4x (and its Lexus and Subaru cousins), and accelerated development of its upcoming long-range and affordable EVs. After all, the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is to not emit it in the first place.

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