Sunday, 3 February 2008

Honda’s hard cell can lead motorists to a fuel paradise

LATER this year a few lucky drivers will have the chance to experience a car that represents the holy grail of green motoring – a zero-emissions vehicle. The Honda FCX Clarity may not look much different from any of the company’s other medium-size cars but it is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and the only emission from its engine is water.

The fuel cells in these cars generate the electricity that drives them from the chemical reaction of pure hydrogen from the tank with oxygen from the air. Hydrogen has many attractions as a fuel: it is the most common element in the universe and can be produced by methods that create hardly any emissions. A fuel cell needs no combustion and produces no emissions from the engine.

At present most hydrogen for vehicle use is produced by a process known as “reforming” from natural gas, a fossil fuel. But the technology has existed for more than a century to produce it by electrolysis, passing a current through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Until now that would have involved using large amounts of electricity generated from fossil fuels, cancelling out any advantage of zero-emissions running, but Honda says it is now feasible to use electricity from renewable sources for this process, thus producing the fuel with virtually no emissions.

However, the introduction of the Clarity illustrates some of the problems that even the biggest of car-makers face when trying to launch technologies that will slash the rate of carbon emissions rather than simply reduce the way in which vehicles use fossil fuels.

John Kingston, environment manager at Honda UK, would relish the chance to try the Clarity here. But, in the absence of a fuel infrastructure, he accepts that he is unable to put a date on when that will be possible: “Unfortunately, it is not imminent. We have looked at many alternative fuels: solar power, battery electric and hybrid. But this is no longer an experiment. Honda is convinced of the role that hydrogen vehicles can play in reducing emissions. We now have to maintain progress in bringing the cost down and getting infrastructure in place.” The company has been investing heavily in the development of a home energy station, a compact unit that could produce hydrogen domestically both for heating and vehicle use.

An experimental filling station in Hornchurch, East London, was used during the trial of fuel-cell buses, but that was dismantled when the first experiment with just three vehicles ended last year. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has announced plans to acquire 70 fuel-cell vehicles – including ten buses – for Transport for London, the police, fire brigade and other services. They will rely on a network of fuel stations to be installed on Greater London Authority premises but these could be made available to other fuel-cell vehicles at a later stage of the trial.
Alan Copps
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