Japanese automakers rev up efforts in hydrogen cars

Oct 25, 2009 by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
Exhaust billows out of a car's exhaust. Auto-manufacturers in Japan are making a renewed push to mass produce a hydrogen-powered vehicle, which runs on electricity generated by a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, which would emit nothing more harmful than water vapour.

Imagine a car that can be refuelled in minutes but emits only water. Sounds like science fiction? In fact it already exists -- Hollywood star Jamie Lee Curtis has one. So does Honda president Takanobu Ito.

Yet while some see them as the ultimate environmentally-friendly automobiles, the high production cost means that affordable hydrogen-powered cars are still more of a dream than reality.

Manufacturers such as Honda, however, are making a renewed push behind the vehicles, which run on electricity generated by a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, belching out nothing more harmful than water vapour.

"We believe that the fuel-cell electric vehicle will be the ultimate form for automobiles in the future," Ito said at the Tokyo Motor Show which opened Wednesday.

"It has advantages such as zero in use, can travel considerable distances without refuelling and can be quickly refuelled," he said.

Honda last year began delivering about 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered cars on lease to US and Japanese customers, including some Hollywood celebrities.

Other automakers have also been pouring money into the technology, invented in the 19th century by the Welsh scientist William Robert Grove.

Toyota, pioneer of hybrids powered by a petrol engine and an electric motor, has said it plans to launch a fuel-cell car by 2015. It is applying its to the vehicles, swapping the petrol engine for a fuel-cell stack.

"We can't concentrate on just one technology," said Takeshi Uchiyamada, the chief engineer of the first-generation Prius hybrid.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he expects that eventually will be used for short distances and fuel-cell hybrids for long journeys.

Nissan and Mazda have developed their own fuel-cell vehicles and leased them to governments and corporate clients, while Suzuki Motor is showcasing a car, a wheelchair and scooter -- all powered by fuel cells -- at the .

The big challenge for manufacturers is to reduce the production cost of hydrogen-powered vehicles -- currently several hundred thousand dollars each.

"There is a feeling that by 2050 fuel cells will eventually surpass electric cars," said Ashvin Chotai, managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia.

"In a lot of countries where electricity is generated with fossil fuels electric cars are still not an ideal solution, especially in places like China and India where a lot of the energy is produced using dirty coal," he said.

The goal of carmakers is for hydrogen for cars to be produced by electrolysing water using renewable energy such as solar power.

Fuel cells have long been seen as an eco-friendly alternative to petrol, but for now most automakers are focusing their attention on hybrids and plug-in electric cars.

Supporters, however, see hydrogen-powered cars as the natural next step because they also use electricity but can be refuelled more quickly than plug-in cars and can travel further before the power runs out.

Some industry experts see a day when compact electric cars are used for short distances and fuel cells for bigger vehicles such as trucks, because hydrogen tanks require a lot of space.

As well as the high cost, the lack of filling stations and the size and weight of the fuel-cell vehicles also present hurdles.

Last month, Toyota, Honda, Renault-Nissan, Hyundai, Ford, General Motors, Daimler and Kia issued a joint plea for a sufficient hydrogen infrastructure network to be built by 2015, from when they believe "a few hundred thousand" of the cars could be commercialised worldwide.

The cause got a vital boost last week when the US Congress approved 187 million dollars in funding for research into fuel cells, seen by supporters as the ultimate zero-emission solution.

"There's no way around it. A fuel-cell car gives you power, distance... It gives you short refuelling time," said George Hansen, GM's head of fuel-cell commercialisation in the Asia-Pacific.

"The technology is there and ready to be used. Now it depends on whether governments are willing to put in place the infrastructure, and whether volume production will bring costs down," he told AFP.

(c) 2009 AFP

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User comments : 12

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david_42
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 25, 2009
The production of hydrogen is expensive and highly energy intensive. Using electricity to make hydrogen, that then has to be trucked everywhere takes 2-4 times as much energy as using the electricity to charge batteries.

The goal of automobile manufacturers is look like they are doing something, while doing business as usual.
Doug_Huffman
3 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2009
Whoever builds it, a hydrogen powered auto's model name should be 'NIMBY'.
Newbeak
4 / 5 (3) Oct 25, 2009
Why this continued obsession with hydrogen stored onboard as a gas? It can be generated on demand from a simple oxidation reaction between metallic zinc,for example,and water.The reaction creates zinc oxide,and releases a molecule of pure hydrogen.
The zinc oxide can be swapped out for recycling at a filling station,and replaced with metallic zinc in the time it takes to fill a gas tank.Transporting the metallic zinc to the filling stations can be done with no losses and 100% safety. See: www.isracast.com/...px?id=51
Shootist
3 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2009
Where are the hydrogen mines?
NeilFarbstein
4 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2009
Why this continued obsession with hydrogen stored onboard as a gas? It can be generated on demand from a simple oxidation reaction between metallic zinc,for example,and water.The reaction creates zinc oxide,and releases a molecule of pure hydrogen.
The zinc oxide can be swapped out for recycling at a filling station,and replaced with metallic zinc in the time it takes to fill a gas tank.Transporting the metallic zinc to the filling stations can be done with no losses and 100% safety. See: http://www.israca...px?id=51


What amount of zinc is necessary to store a hundred miles worth of hydrogen?
jerryd
not rated yet Oct 25, 2009
David 42 is exactly right, Foolcell car can never because of basic physics be viable. It costs far more and uses far more fuel than an EV.

The is just a way to keep from building EV's by putting up a straw man. Car companies do not like EV's because they are simple, last a long time and need little parts or servicing, their biggest profit margins.
jerryd
not rated yet Oct 25, 2009
And I forgot Honda's Ito is lying as producing H2 takes/makes a lot of CO2 or doesn't displace fossil fuels that do if made from RE, nuke.
fixer
4 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2009
Better idea, make really big hydrogen generating plants, attach really big fuel cells to make cheap electricity and call it a POWER STATION, buy a cheap electric car with a solar cell on the roof and bootlid.
The technology is available now to build a simple but highly efficient car with minimal moving parts for under $10,000
If major vehicle manufacturers won't play ball then the private sector will fill the need.
Roj
not rated yet Oct 26, 2009
Auto Mfg's watching alternate-vehicle markets can steal market share whenever demand justifies the production volume.

Cash-cow revenues from gas guzzlers can retool anytime after alternate-vehicle developments prove ripe for the pickings.

Stock holders have made it a mission for many a board of directors to minimize risk or capital investment to achieve steady growth.

There is plenty of time for Auto Mfg's to join the alternate-vehicle race as power plants standardize between fuel cell, plug-in, and ultracapacitor, or some optimal configuration of all three.
Kelset
Oct 26, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Newbeak
not rated yet Oct 26, 2009
Why this continued obsession with hydrogen stored onboard as a gas? It can be generated on demand from a simple oxidation reaction between metallic zinc,for example,and water.The reaction creates zinc oxide,and releases a molecule of pure hydrogen.
The zinc oxide can be swapped out for recycling at a filling station,and replaced with metallic zinc in the time it takes to fill a gas tank.Transporting the metallic zinc to the filling stations can be done with no losses and 100% safety. See: http://www.israca...px?id=51


What amount of zinc is necessary to store a hundred miles worth of hydrogen?

Well,I can't find the figures for zinc,but a company is producing a hydrogen on demand system using Sodium Borohydride which gives an energy density a little less that liquid hydrogen:
http://www.fuelce...0804.pdf
phlipper
not rated yet Nov 01, 2009
No one is addressing how a hydrogen powered vehicle would fare in freezing cold weather. With all the steam coming out of the exhaust, there is no doubt, in my mind, that dangerous, ice covered roads would be the result. Would someone please correct me on this?
Newbeak
not rated yet Nov 02, 2009
No one is addressing how a hydrogen powered vehicle would fare in freezing cold weather. With all the steam coming out of the exhaust, there is no doubt, in my mind, that dangerous, ice covered roads would be the result. Would someone please correct me on this?

Shouldn't be a problem.Current ICE exhaust is largely water vapor,and we have learnt to deal with it.Check this link for more:http://www.newton...5123.htm