“Zero-emission” car debut – Honda FCX

AP

The hydrogen fuel cell car is being praised for its smoothness and futuristic qualities as it arrives in southern California. The “zero-emission” Honda FCX Clarity, two times more energy efficient than a gas-electric hybrid and available for lease for $600/month, is currently being received by Hollywood actors, but is limited to areas near fuel stations in Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine. The lack of a hydrogen infrastructure is labeled is the “single limiting factor” in the expansion of the technology.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we get too excited about this breakthrough.

The car emits only water, so the “zero-emissions” label really only means zero carbon. Harmless, right? Well, not exactly. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas and accounts for anywhere between 36% and 66% of the greenhouse effect. Before you get the idea that hydrogen fuel cells are terrible for the environment, keep in mind that traditional internal combustion engines emit both carbon dioxide and water vapor, so they are more environmentally friendly. (Chemical Reactions) This concern is addressed nicely here if you’d like a more in-depth look.

However, labeling the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure as the “single limiting-factor” understates how much of a limiting-factor it is. After all, fueling stations would be needed all over the country for a technology that will have competition from other “green” alternatives such as gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Who will incur the cost of implementing this infrastructure if the profitability is not there in the short to medium-term? This is likely the significant advantage that the plug-in hybrids and electric automobiles have over hydrogen cars.

In fact, the scalability of hydrogen cars is definitely questionable. Honda’s plan involves leasing 300 FCX’s over three years, so the environmental impact and dent in oil consumption will be relatively non-existent. By 2014, California needs 7,500 hydrogen cars, a greater number, but still relatively insignificant. In contrast, over a million of the Toyota Prius have been sold, and Toyota and Chevy are planning 2010 releases of plug-in hybrids. It seems pretty clear which technology is going to come out on top. Will the hydrogen car have enough support to create the necessary infrastructure? Probably not for several decades. Honda, by not developing a plug-in hybrid, is betting that there will be.

Also, an important fact to remember is that hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. The energy that hydrogen provides will be provided by other means, whether it be steam reformation of natural gas or electrolysis. California is the ideal location to implement hydrogen and electric cars considering the large proportion of renewable electricity. There are also newer methods made possible by technological breakthroughs such as using aluminum and gallium in a reaction with water, which would also make the hydrogen economy more feasible.

At least in the immediate future, the actors and actresses can feel eco-conscious and futuristic. We just need to remember that something else will be needed in the interim while the infrastructure and technology develops. Let us not also forget that the cheap personal automobile is a special privilege, not a right. We should look for a means to preserve our way of life, but still be prepared for a change.

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5 Responses

  1. Brian,
    No doubt the Clarity has several hurdles ahead. The infrastructure will be just one of the biggest challenges- another will be decreasing the cost which currently is “severals of thousands of dollars”. Though Honda predicts it can decrease this to below $100,000 in the next decade, 100K is not really affordable for the average car buying Joe. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to recognize that this is a major step. The climate change, the rising gas prices, and the depleting fossil fuel resources are problems that are here to stay, so we need long term solutions. We may not have many hydrogen filling stations now but if there is a need/demand the market and governments will certainly have to respond. And more importantly this car just goes to show how important it is to innovate even when “times ares good.” Despite the criticism companies like Honda and Toyota have gotten in the past couple decades they are the ones in an enviable position now. I’ve written more on my blog at http://www.brilliont.com/blogs/hotcommodity/

    Brilliont

  2. Yeah, I agree with what you said. I think the point I was trying to make was that since the technology is a few decades from full implementation, and we have a crisis on our hands in the present day, we should focus our energies on the existing technologies that could be quickly put in place to offset our gasoline consumption. This is definitely a good option in the long-run if the battery tech turns out to not be that great, or the lithium supply is limited, and should be developed along with EVs and hybrids.

  3. As far as I can see, the advantages that hydrogen has over batteries are that a tank’s capacity will not decrease over time (a battery’s capacity typically will) and that if the tank runs dry, it can be filled rapidly whereas plugging in takes time.

    Those are definitely significant, if the infrastructure can be built. However, the media hoopla is definitely premature. Hydrogen will probably never be more than a secondary option.

  4. This is funny. It’s a shame something like this won’t be mainstream any time soon because of the greedy gas and oil companies bogging down it’s progress. I hope everyone is aware that the technology exsists for electronic cars that can go 100 mph for 400 miles on a single charge. Don’t tell our wonderful government that though.

  5. The style of writing is quite familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

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