Honda Tests Deeper Waters With the Hydrogen Fuel Cell-Powered Clarity

Source: Honda

We human beings are using fossil fuels at an astounding rate. While we’re going to continue to find more, we will eventually run out. This leads to many companies thinking about what the future will be and how they will play a part in it. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are one path forward, but until energy generation becomes efficient enough that we can manage it on a local scale, we’re going to be relying on the grid to power our vehicles (and vice versa). Another path that has been explored is a technology that allows electricity to be generated onboard the vehicle itself. To do this, companies are going to make use of fuel cells; Honda was the first company to produce a fuel cell vehicle on any appreciable scale, and it recently announced that it is bringing an updated version of it to market in 2016.

The second generation of the Honda FCX Clarity was one of first Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV) to be mass-produced for consumers. It was produced between 2008 and 2014 with roughly 50 units available only for lease in U.S. It cost $600 per month to lease, which was the only option, and was limited to markets that had access to a hydrogen fueling station — namely California.

The hydrogen gas is introduced into a fuel cell to produce electricity, which then powered a 100 kilowatt (kW) electric motor, which is equivalent to 130 horsepower. This was a dedicated electric vehicle by design, meaning there is no way for the hydrogen to directly propel the car. The range was approximately 230 miles, and the vehicle had a combined fuel economy rating of 59 miles/kilogram of hydrogen (which is roughly equivalent to one gallon of gasoline).

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Honda unveiled the replacement for the FCX Clarity with the new Honda Clarity. The fuel cell has been significantly upgraded for this new model, and is 33% more compact and with 60% greater power density than the previous unit. Due to its smaller size, roughly the size of a V6 engine, the fuel cell was able to fit under the hood and did not need to take up space in the passenger cabin, as was the case on the FCX Clarity, making the cabin of the car more spacious. Refueling times will remain similar (3-5 minutes) and Honda is aiming for a range of more than 300 miles per tank of hydrogen. Regarding the style of the car:

The interior strives to achieve a refined and harmonious experience using rich materials and intuitive, streamlined controls. Additional features include the Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver assistive technologies, support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, LED exterior lighting and 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels. The Clarity Fuel Cell will be available in black, white, and signature red exterior paint schemes.

Source: Honda

Fuel cells allow for hydrogen gas (H2) to be combined with oxygen gas (O2) to produce water and electricity. There are three main parts to a fuel cell: an anode, an electrolyte layer, and a cathode. The anode is a catalyst that causes hydrogen gas to breakdown into positively charged hydrogen ions (H+) and electrons (e-). The H+ ions travel through the electrolyte layer while the electrons travel via a circuit to the cathode. Once the ions reach the cathode, they combine with oxygen to form water, which is the only waste product of the fuel cell. Since fuel cells are often made of extremely rare and expensive materials, they tend to be used in environments where physical space is limited but budgets are not (think space shuttles). Still, Honda seems to think it can make this work; according to John Mendel, Executive Vice President for American Honda:

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a zero emissions technology that Honda believes in, and has worked to advance for more than 20 years. Vehicles like the Clarity Fuel Cell are potential game changers because they offer an uncompromising, zero emissions customer experience, with utility, range and refueling times on par with today’s gasoline-powered cars.

Source: Honda

Honda (and Toyota, as well) did a very good job taking a relatively unknown technology and packaging it in a car that could appeal to consumers. Pricing information was not released, but Honda provided a link for anyone that is interested in learning more about how to become a Clarity customer when it is released in 2016. If the Toyota Mirai is any indication, the Clarity could run about $50,000-$60,000 off the lot. Initially, the car will only be available in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Sacramento; Honda has plans for future expansion, both in California and other parts of the U.S., but they will be dependent upon availability of hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Due to the fact that hydrogen exists in in a gaseous state at atmospheric conditions, there are different challenges to overcome for fueling. Not only does the hydrogen need to be purified (often liberated from methane or water), but it needs to be compressed to provide sufficient energy density in the tank to allow for a usable range. This makes the fueling stations much more expensive than gasoline or diesel stations.

Honda has joined an industry group H2USA which has a mission to expand hydrogen fueling across the United States, both through researching new technologies and installing new fueling sites. Additionally, Honda pledged $13.4 million in 2014 to expand the hydrogen fueling infrastructure throughout California. This is all leading toward Honda’s goal to reduce company-wide CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050.

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