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On the Brink of the Fuel Cell Future?
Jamais Cascio, 8 Feb 06

Honda_FCX_01.jpgThe hydrogen fuel cell vehicle concept, once the darling of the cybergreen/hypercar crowd, has diminished in luster over the past few years. Perhaps it was due to the sluggish pace of development. Perhaps it was due to the all-too-eager embrace of the technology by political and corporate figures well known to favor continued dominance of the petroleum economy. Perhaps it had just started to feel dated, like talking about freezing your head after you die -- a vaguely-embarrassing symbol of a particular era of futurism. That proponents of hydrogen cars kept talking about them being "just a decade away" even as the years progressed didn't help matters.

Honda may change all that.

Last month, Honda announced that it would begin production in Japan of its fuel cell FCX vehicle within the next three to four years. The FCX line has been Honda's fuel cell vehicle prototype for a few years now, and beyond a handful of experimental locations, the car seemed ill-suited to regular use. Tiny, somewhat underpowered, and saddled with a range about half of a typical gasoline-fueled car -- not that you could go long distances away from the one or two hydrogen fueling stations in the state anyway -- the FCX simply wasn't an attractive option. The new FCX design, however, changes all of that, and manages to induce something that previous hydrogen fuel cell vehicles couldn't: auto lust.

Sleek, roomy, and built upon Honda's latest-generation fuel cell system -- a stack providing a hundred kilowatts of power (that's a respectable 134 horsepower) and a hydrogen storage tank allowing over 350 miles range -- Honda's production prototype FCX suddenly looks like a viable contender. As for the fueling issue, two developments may mitigate the problem, at least a bit. In California, the "hydrogen highway" initiative continues to move forward (PDF), promising hydrogen fueling stations every 20 miles along major highways in the state. More importantly, Honda has coupled the announcement of the FCX production with the latest generation of its Home Energy Station (HES) -- and it's this combination that could make the FCX a winner.

The Home Energy Station uses regular natural gas as its base fuel, reforming it into H2 to fuel the FCX at home. But that's not all it does:

The system is equipped with fuel cells that generate and supply electricity to the home, and is configured to recover the heat produced during power generation for domestic water heating. In addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by some 40 percent, the HES system is expected to lower the total running cost of household electricity, gas and vehicle fuel by 50 percent.

Plug-in hybrid advocates (and I count myself among them) argue that the ability of the PHEV to function as a home power source when needed make it more useful than simply an advanced form of transportation. Remember, in the bright green world we're trying to build, distributed energy technologies and smart power grids will make home generation a common part of our lives. Not to live "off the grid," mind you, but to be a "grid collaborator," both supplying power to the grid and pulling power from the grid as needs change throughout the day. The FCX+HES combination does that, too, but adds the ability to generate power at home even when the vehicle is out on the road.

Questions remain about whether the FCX will live up to this promise, of course. Honda has not committed to selling the FCX outside of Japan, so it may be another "just a decade away" claim all over again. The Home Energy Station's reliance on natural gas may prove problematic if natural gas prices remain high. And probably most critically, the Honda announcement conspicuously did not mention price; given that the production costs of the earlier, less-stylish or functional generations of Honda fuel cell cars were supposedly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's reasonable to assume that Honda will be spending the next several years feverishly trying to bring the price down to something that regular buyers can afford.

All of that said, I have to admit to getting a bit of a charge out of getting a glimpse of a real-world, consumer-friendly fuel cell vehicle on the near horizon, especially when coupled to the home power system. I'm still not convinced that fuel cells will win out over all-electric (especially with recent advances in high-efficiency ultracapacitors with battery-equivalent energy densities), but I'm happy to see the competition for next-generation personal transportation get lively once again.

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Comments

Jamais,
I too am excited when I hear about advances in the next generation of autos. What concerns me when I read of these Hydrogen systems is very few talk about the fact that in order to get the Hydrogen one needs to use a whole lot of petroleum. This may take us one step closer to a less reliant economy on fossil fuels, but this is a baby step that should have been taken decades ago. I apologize for preaching to the choir.
Reliantly,
Jim Korpi
www.jimkorpi.com


Posted by: Jim Korpi on 9 Feb 06

hi guys
I've found this really interesting video podcast's feed about hydrogen as energy source and related Hydrogen Olympics:

apple:
http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=115485761&s=143450

xml:
http://www.gommunity.com/podcast/torino/podcast.xml

cheers


Posted by: Antonio on 9 Feb 06

@Jim
To create hydrogen, electricity is needed. Electricity can be created by a hydroplant (dam, waves), nuclear -in the future possibly even 'clean'- energy, wind energy, geothermal energy (Iceland!), and yes also coal and petroleum. But that last option would be rather pointless as it would be more efficient to use those directly in the car itself.



Posted by: heidekonijn on 9 Feb 06

Jamais,

Whether hydrogen fuel cell or plug in hybrid both will ultimately need electricity as its power source and the only technology that will reliably and cleanly fill that bill is nuclear with spent fuel reprocessing. I agree, the future of advanced automoblile technology is exciting and closer than we think.


Posted by: Phil on 9 Feb 06

I know I for one can't wait until these things come out on the market, and become affordable. I look forward to driving a car that is not part of a larger problem, but instead-part of a solution!


Posted by: Business babe on 9 Feb 06

If you haven't yet - pick up this month's Scientific American. I'm about to burst something out about the nanograss battery concept in it... pretty wild stuff. Figure in an hour or so... Lunch. Peanut butter. woohoo.


Posted by: Taran on 9 Feb 06

Until the EPA changes the "fleet" MPG requirements every fuel miser will simply allow for another Hummer. We need to push for higher MPG standards for each class of vehicle. Otherwise a car like this may shelter your personal transportation from the high environmental and financial costs of oil, but will do little about the overall problems of oil depletion, terror, and global warming.

That said, I'm still pretty excited.

Also, does anyone know if there is there reason or potential to put a big battery in one of these things for a hydrogen electric hybrid?


Posted by: dan stiles on 9 Feb 06

Migrating more and more cars to hydrogen/battery power doesn't to a lot in the short term -- coal, for example, still generates the bulk of our electricity.

What it DOES do, though, is make our entire transportation infrastructure more 'nimble' with regards to power generation. As others have noted, electricity can come from any source -- the first step is a fleet of cars that can make use of it, rather than requiring petrol from square one.


Posted by: Jeff Eaton on 9 Feb 06

For every hummer there are 50 or so suped up sorts cars getting even worse gas milage.

For every hummer there are prolly 200 motorboats that consume more fuel then 3 hummers.

For every hummer there are likely 100 small airplanes that consume more fuel then 10 hummers.

And for every hummer there are alot of skydivers that consume more fuel in one day then the average hummer driver does in a month.


Posted by: wintermane on 9 Feb 06

Last time I checked, Hondas FCX vehicles have been using ultracapacitors (to answer the big battery hybrid question) to help with load variations


Posted by: Colin on 9 Feb 06

are there any manufacturers that could use support in the way of stock purchase that is making the equipment these cars utilize?


Posted by: pam on 9 Feb 06

There's a lot happening on the front of biohydrogen too. Aqueous Phase Reforming is probably one of the more efficient routes to cheap production. Any starch or sugar containing biomass can be turned into good quality hydrogen, even in small or on-board reformers.
The GreenCarCongress recently had an article about a successful demonstration of this process, with a 10kW power generation system that converts sugars and glycerin directly into hydrogen and natural gas as fuel for a Ford 1.6-liter, four-cylinder combustion engine genset.
Please find it here: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2006/01/successful_star.html

At less than $4/kg, the company in question says it beats wind, solar, nuclear, and other biomass solutions in cost.

It seems like we're really getting closer very fast now.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 9 Feb 06

Id say the main push for h2 comes from industry wanting to totaly elimiate emissions issues on the car end of the system.

Also Its NOT that we dont expect some bio fuels but we expect bio to be consumed by planes and trucks and for there not to be enough for all uses. h2 is particularly good for cars because we need never worry about poorly maintained emissions controls or modded cars or any of that. Semis and passenger planes are alot easier to monitor and control.


Posted by: wintermane on 10 Feb 06

Lorenzo.

I assume you mean that these other sources of energy are more expensive ways to produce hydrogen than the APR process.

However, my understanding is that 1kg of hydrogen is equal to 1 gallon of gasoline and 16kwhr of electricity.

I'm paying $1.28 for 16kwhr of electricity. The current cost per gallon of gasoline is much cheaper than $4/gallon. If we're comparing wholesale to wholesale prices, then the gap is even greater. Now, if the cost to produce hydrogen is independent of the costs of energy, then I suppose that eventually the cost of hydrogen would probably eventually be cheaper than gasoline. But that's a big if.

However, Virent (the developer), claims that the process is co2 neutral. If that is truly the case, then maybe we've got something here. I have yet to see a well to wheel analysis of the APR process, so will have to suspend judgement for the time being.


Posted by: t on 10 Feb 06

I for one am excited about hydrogen. Every project I do in school is related to hydrogen in some form or another. From all the readings I have done I have come to one conclusion: Hydrogen will sit in a suspended state of action until we have the infrastructure to support it. China and India will probably be years ahead of us in building this infrastructer. For the first stages of the Hydrogen revolution Coal and natural gas will be needed, but in time they will wien it off using Wind. North Dakota has started production of a wind farm that is exclusive to producing hydrogen. Enmax just got approval to start on a 140 million dollar wind farm in souther Alberta that will provide enough power for 35,000 homes. I read somewhere that it is possible to generate 13 times more energy from wind than the world can consume. Yet we all know that the internet is full of Bull shit.


Posted by: Clint on 12 Feb 06



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