Toyota's Fuel Cell Engineer is Smashing Barriers, Technical and Social

A Q&A with Toyota's Jackie Birdsall.
Jackie Birdsall demonstrating the fueling process for a Mirai. (Image source: Toyota)

Toyota senior engineer Jackie Birdsall sat down to talk with Design News during a recent briefing on the company's upcoming 2021 Mirai fuel cell vehicle, and we asked her about the developing technology and her experience as a female engineer in a male-dominated industry.

Design News: Was fuel cell engineering your career target?

Jackie Birdsall: When I was in high school I fell in love with muscle cars and supercars. I think that’s high school. Our high school selves are, “Yeah, speed!”

So, I entered Kettering University and my focus was powertrain. I took a new class that was being offered on hybrid vehicles and the first lecture at the time was on Peak Oil. Global warming and climate change weren’t really a discussion yet, but Peak Oil was, and the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels was a huge part of this lecture.

It was funny, this professor who I adored was telling us that everything we cared about is destroying the planet. That awakened in me something that I didn’t really recognize prior to entering university, which is what I think university is for.

My very first co-op happened to be with DaimlerChrysler RTNA (Research and Technology North America) in Sacramento on their NECAR 4A, which was their prototype fuel cell vehicle. It was the two worlds at once: I get to work on powertrains, but zero emission automotive powertrains to solve this big issue that I’ve just been introduced to. This is it! This is what I want to do. That’s 2003, and I’ve been working on it since.

Daimler NECAR 4 fuel cell vehicle. (Image source: Daimler)

DN: How have you seen the fuel cell world change since then?

Birdsall: Dramatically. Things that were originally said to be impossible have been achieved. There’ve been these incremental steps that I think aren’t visible to the public, but as far as engineering achievement are really spectacular.

Such as cold start capability. Being able to start the vehicles and get any reasonable amount of power quickly was originally said to be near-impossible. We’ve demonstrated through our vehicle that we can accomplish that through just monitoring the ambient temperature and spooling up the compressor, blowing out the water and having a very specific start-up logic when you’re at freezing temperatures.

Even the current-generation Mirai, the chief engineer at the time wanted to remove the external humidification, because low-temperature fuel cells need to be humidified in order for the electric chemical reaction to take place. Typically, in fuel cells you have an external humidifier that is providing that water. Our charge with the current-generation Mirai was to remove the external humidification and use the water that is generated in the fuel cell itself to retain that humidification to have that process occur.

That was something that was [considered] not possible. By achieving that without an additional component, you are looking at a cost savings and simplification of the system. It is all through logic. Sometimes I wish I was a computer scientist, because so much of what we do now with vehicles is software and logic.

The 2019 Toyota Mirai features integrated fuel cell humification. (Image source: Toyota)

DN: What are you working on right now?

Birdsall: My focus is the compressed hydrogen storage system. So now I do get to employ a lot of mechanical engineering: thermodynamics, structural analysis and my personal favorite, testing.

DN: Like when you demonstrated a fuel cell’s hydrogen tank sustaining a puncture by a bullet without exploding or catching fire?

Birdsall: All the tanks are designed to do what is called “Leak Before Burst,” LBB. Which means it releases the hydrogen in a controlled way so that the tank doesn’t rupture. There are all these different tests that we have to undergo to prove that our tanks are capable of leak before burst. One of them is what we call the high strain rate impact test, but externally we just call it the gunfire test, which is meant to demonstrate that if you penetrate the side wall of the tank you can still maintain the integrity and safely relieve the pressure.

DN: Can you talk about how you’ve improved the tank?

Birdsall: We’re still running at 70 megapascals or 10,000 pounds per square inch, but we have not announced the official capacity increase. They are all made internally at Toyota. We make the current generation at the Honsha plant in Toyota City. We’ve increased our production capabilities by tenfold, to 30,000 a year. The infrastructure will dictate the rate at which we roll the vehicles out. We’re already seeing California infrastructure being strained by current capacity. We have to be sure that capacity is being built out sufficiently to support our customers. Again, that 30,000 volume is globally, not just for California.

DN: Is it frustrating to be working on a product whose utility is dependent on a non-existent fueling network?

Birdsall: It is more exciting to see how far the technology has come and the potential for its real impact in the marketplace. What is frustrating for me is, I was working at Toyota City directly in Japan, and I did a lot of hydrogen station testing as well did the next-generation vehicle’s tank system. I was right there and seeing what happens when you have sufficient infrastructure and vehicles coming in one after another with less than five minutes filling time and taking off for another 300 miles, and it was so seamless and it made so much sense. That we haven’t been able to reproduce that in the U.S. yet is frustrating. Because we you do see it work correctly it just makes so much sense. We do see that in Los Angeles or San Francisco, certain stations, but not to the same degree to which we see it in Japan.

A Japanese hydrogen fuel station. (Image source: Toyota)

DN: What prevents it in the US from being as sensible as it is in Japan?

Birdsall: Just the amount of stations. They have more stations and less vehicles. So that’s the key to the infrastructure success in Japan for how. For us it is just more stations and redundancy. We’ve learned that it is really important to have multiple stations available to customers so that if for any reason one station is overloaded or something went wrong at the station, the nozzle is broken or something like that, then the customer has an alternative station to go to that is still within their comfortable range of their work or their home.

Now we are even starting to see the number of fueling positions. Originally when we were working with other automakers and the state of California to spec the stations, we were typically looking at one fueling island, one dispenser. Regardless of five-minute refueling, you can still get a lineup of customers waiting for that one dispenser. Now we are saying we want two dispensers at that station. That can have a huge impact because we can get through twice as many customers in the same amount of time.

DN: Did you study the most efficient layout of stations to ensure access to the dispenser?

Birdsall: Yes, we studied ingress, egress, access to the station, location of the dispenser, typically what the wait time is for customers that are filling back-to-back, we studied pretty much all of it. I got to know gas stations far better than I ever imagined I would, including everything down to the metrology and the codes that all the stations are built to and ensuring that we have similar codes for hydrogen.

Toyota's Project Portal is developing heavy-duty fuel cell trucks for commercial use. (Image source: Toyota)

DN: Now that you’ve finished the Mirai, what is your next project?

Birdsall: I am now working on Project Portal, the heavy-duty truck.

DN: Is that similar to what Nikola is doing?

Birdsall: We’ve announced a partnership with have with them to develop a heavy-duty nozzle, receptacle, hose and break-away, what we call the fueling interface between the station and the vehicle, so that we have a common interface. So they can fill at our heavy-duty stations and we can fill at their heavy-duty stations.

DN: Is the hydrogen fuel cell doomed to perpetually be the energy source of the future?

Birdsall: I hope not. Building infrastructure is the only thing holding us up. People say a charging station compared to a hydrogen station is so much cheaper, but really once you see a hydrogen station in action, especially now the new ones with two fueling dispensers and you see the amount of throughput you can get and the range that these cars can get, it really fills this niche that battery electrics right now aren’t so able to fill, the quicker-filling, longer-range.

Particularly people who have street parking. I can’t really plug my car in. I think what’s going to happen as we move through hybridization to full electrification and full zero-emission vehicles we’re going to see this beautiful portfolio play out of both existing battery electrics and fuel cells, totally depending on what works for the customer.

DN: What has your experience been in the industry as a female engineer?

Birdsall: I’ve been really lucky in that I think the alternative fuel space is a little more progressive. And working for Toyota particularly, the two pillars of Toyota are continuous improvement and respect for people. I’ve felt that as a female engineer at the company even though I usually am the only woman in the room, I’ve never felt any different because of that.

I have worked in the manufacturing space, which is a bit...different. I’ve also worked in auto shops before, which is also different. There is a difference between academia and industry. Academia is such a fun, safe space to really learn your trade without feeling like an outsider all of a sudden, which coming into the industry, you are.

I get a lot of questions about women who started out in engineering and ended up dropping out of it. That makes me a little sad because I wish they stayed with it. I think typically, you’ve heard all the reports about diversity where men go for job that they think they may one day be qualified for, whereas women feel like they have to be 100 percent qualified for it before they go for it.

I know even in my undergrad there were a lot of times when I felt like I wasn’t as knowledgeable as the men I was going to school with, and like I had more to prove. I think that is a kind of self-imposed ideal. I don’t think that’s true at all, and I think that I’d like to see more women stick through with their engineering degree and realize that maybe they are more on the same level than they are giving themselves credit for. It is just that it may not be as confidently put out there.

DN: Do you still have male peers discouraging that, saying that you don’t belong?

Birdsall: It has been a long time since I’ve been told that. I think that’s more prevalent in the more entry-level positions, though I don’t if that is just based on when I was in an entry-level position or because I was in an entry-level position. I think it just comes down to knowing your stuff. If you know your stuff then you’ll gain the respect of your peers and if you don’t get respect, who cares about those people anyway?

I hope that is not the case anymore for entry-level women, but I still hear about it once in a while.

DN: While Toyota is regarded as a progressive place for women to work, what has your experience been while working in Japan, where society may be more conservative regarding gender roles?

Birdsall: I did work in Toyota City for 13 months, and by then I’d been out there enough that the team knew me really well, so I never experienced any of the kind of sexism that you hear about in Japan. It was pretty amazing.

That said, I also was one of two women engineers I met the whole time I was there, so there weren’t many of us. Or any of us!  It is a very interesting culture. I think it is starting to change, I think a lot of my Japanese female friends that I made there are all career women as well, where even a generation before they weren’t. So, I think that dynamic is really starting to change there as well. But personally, no, I never did experience it.

Except, you know we wear these steel toes (shoes) at the office? They didn’t make steel toes in a women’s size large enough for me, so I had to wear the men’s steel toes so it looked like were clown shoes. That would be one complaint about being an American woman in Japan! They didn’t make women-sized steel toes big enough for me.

Dan Carney is a Design News senior editor, covering automotive technology, engineering and design, especially emerging electric vehicle and autonomous technologies.

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