Friday, November 16, 2007

Fuel Cells at Forefront in LA Auto Show

Honda has chosen the pomp and circumstance of the LA Auto Show this week to roll out the first commercially available fuel cell car. Honda has finally named its fourth-generation vehicle, the FCX Clarity. Honda will lease about 100 of them next summer in the LA, where an albeit limited hydrogen fueling infrastructure exists, for $600/month.

The car will be much quieter (I have driven it), cleaner, and cheaper to operate than any other on road - it promises to get up to 68 miles per gallon-equivalent of hydrogen (conveniently about 1 kG). I don't have exact 'at-the-pump' pricing, but hydrogen has been in the $4-$5 range per kG. The DOE target has been to get it down under $3, but that was when gas cost $2/gallon. The Clarity, not in mass production, costs Honda somewhere in the range of $600,000 - $1M to produce, but just getting the gorgeous machines out there will present a real breakthrough for the chicken-and-egg problem for hydrogen vehicles, encouraging more fueling stations. California has been anxious to take pressure off the grid, heavily subsidizing recent FuelCell Energy 300 kW - 1.2 MW stationary installations through its Self-Generation Program. So unless highly-touted plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can be forced to charge-up only between midnight and 6 a.m., the FC vehicles have an upper hand.

Ford said it is going slow with FCVs because of problems with the LiIon rechargeable batteries, which Honda is using in the Clarity, but other more advanced electric vehicles depend more heavily on their batteries than FCVs. And Honda has already used ultra-capacitors in previous versions of it FCX with great success, and they will be getting much less costly and more powerful in coming years. Ford has just purchased a share in Ballard's automotive fuel cell business - it is certainly good for the industry that Ford can complain about the battery and not the FC.

Also demonstrated at the show was a new technology high-temp PEM powered Volkswagen, actually a three-way hybrid. The 'Space Up! Blue' (not one of the classically great VW names) has a large bank of LiIon batteries plus solar panels on the roof. Definitely a concept vehicle. High temp PEM, operating at 120-160 Celsius rather than the standard 60-80, is more forgiving of fuel impurities, eliminates the need for water management, and provides easier thermal management.

I'd go with the Honda.

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