Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Hydrogen: an automotive fuel for the future?

Honda’s FCV Concept, which has made its European debut at the Geneva Motor Show (but was unveiled first in Tokyo late last year), is said to pave the way for an “all-new fuel cell” road car,
The car is scheduled to go on sale in Japan in the first half of 2016, then in the US and
finally in Europe within the following 12 months.

Honda's next-generation fuel cell vehicle will succeed the brand's two previous production fuel cell cars, the FCX and FCX Clarity, and will feature significant improvements in performance and costs, according to the company.

The newly-developed fuel cell stack installed in the FCV Concept is one-third smaller than its predecessor, and yet achieves an output of over 100 kW and an output density as high as 3.1kW/litre. This contributes to an overall performance improvement of approximately 60 per cent.

Honda proclaims that at its launch next year, its third production fuel cell vehicle will be the world's first fuel cell car with the entire powertrain, including the downsized fuel cell stack, housed under the bonnet of a conventional sedan body shape.

This packaging layout enables designers and engineers to develop a full cabin package that seats five adults comfortably.

This will, according to Honda, “provide a future pathway” to evolve Honda's fuel cell-specific platform to provide the foundation for further body styles, which will contribute to promoting the more widespread acceptance and adoption of this zero emissions technology by a wider section of motorists.

The Honda FCV Concept is equipped with a 70MPa (10,152lb/in2) high-pressure hydrogen storage tank that provides a cruising range of more than 700km (435 miles). Note: 10,152lb/in2!

The tank, according to Honda, can be refilled in approximately three minutes, making refuelling “as quick and easy” as today's conventionally-fuelled cars.

                                        The 'hydrogen energy society'

Honda enthuses glibly about the ‘hydrogen society’ as if it is just round the corner. Anyone who has worked with rocket engines for space exploration knows full well that hydrogen can be a nasty fuel to be kept out of sight of the man in the street.

Hydrogen is available as a gas and as a liquid. Liquid hydrogen for rockets engines operates at minus 253°C. Thus the fuelling of future hydrogen society vehicles will need to be an automatic affair.

Also, pressures of 70MPa suggest high-strength steel tanks in the vehicle at the very least.
Not surprisingly therefore, as part of its “holistic” approach to promoting the adoption of the forthcoming 'hydrogen energy society', Honda continues to tackle the challenges facing the uptake of the fuel cell vehicle by developing new enabler hydrogen technologies beyond the vehicle itself.

One such innovation installed in the FCV Concept is the Honda Power Exporter Concept, an external power feeding function, which underwent a large number of verification tests with the FCX Clarity. This system enables the car to act as a small mobile power plant generating electricity to the community in times of disaster or other events. It is capable of producing up to 9kW of AC power.

Furthermore, Honda will continue to promote the application of the Smart Hydrogen Station (SHS), a packaged hydrogen station unit that adopts Honda's original high-differential-pressure electrolyser.

Together, the Power Exporter Concept, FCV Concept and Smart Hydrogen Station embody Honda's vision for the forthcoming 'hydrogen society', respectively representing the 'generate', 'use' and 'get connected' functions.

Through these interrelated technologies, and other research and development activities, Honda claims it is “working tirelessly” towards a CO2-free society.

Honda views hydrogen as a high-potential, next-generation energy solution that can be generated from various energy sources and is “easily transportable and storable”.

Based on this view, Honda has been positioning the fuel cell vehicle – which uses electricity generated through the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen as a power source for the motor – as the “ultimate environmentally” responsible vehicle.

Honda claims it has taken a proactive approach to the research and development of fuel cell vehicles since the late 1980s.

In 2002, the Honda FCX became the first fuel cell vehicle to be certified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

With these certifications, Honda began lease sales of the Honda FCX in Japan and the U.S. In 2003, Honda developed the Honda FC Stack, the world's first fuel cell stack able to start at below-freezing temperatures.

Then, in 2005, Honda became the first vehicle manufacturer to begin lease sales of fuel cell vehicles to individual customers in the US.

In 2008, Honda began lease sales of the FCX Clarity, a fuel cell vehicle that offered not only the “ultimate in clean performance”, but also innovative sedan-type package and sophisticated driving feel.

Honda claims it has been a leading company in the development of fuel cell vehicles, amassing real-world data through lease sales in Japan and the US, including real-world feedback from individual users and also driving data from the vehicles.
                                            Other developments

In early 2013, Toyota and BMW revealed plans to cooperate on hydrogen fuel cell research. A little earlier that same year, earlier Ford, Daimler and Nissan announced they would team up in a push to bring their own fuel cell technology to market as early as 2017.

“This technology has the biggest potential for emission-free driving,” enthused Daimler’s chief technologist, Thomas Weber, at the time.

In the mid-1990s hydrogen power was seen as a revolution in the making.  The gas could either be burned in an internal combustion engine, as with gasoline, or used in a fuel-cell stack. And the only thing to come out of the exhaust pipe would be water vapour.

Most firms focused on fuel-cell systems, in which hydrogen is directed through a membrane covered with platinum and other rare metals. In the process electrons are released, meaning that if enough hydrogen is fed through a fuel cell, it can power an electric motor.

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it does not exist on its own. It must be stripped from other compounds, such as water or a hydrocarbon molecule. This requires large amounts of energy and a specialist processing facility. Other issues are shipping and storing. And there are challenges in the vehicle itself.

In the US, the federal government has allocated research funding for both fuel cells and battery systems. The German government too has provided funding for a network of alternative power service stations across the country that will offer both battery chargers and hydrogen pumps.

Hydrogen is available only in a few places. In Southern California. As mentioned, Honda has leased a small fleet of its FCX hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to a select group of consumers. And in Hawaii, General Motors has tested a small fleet of hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinox.

Ford, Daimler and Nissan no doubt believe that the number of hydrogen-powered vehicles will grow, thanks to their alliance, while that between BMW and Toyota can only help to increase the interest. Honda’s ‘go it alone’ activities could help to swell awareness of the technology.

Collaboration by these OEMs as well as the go-it-alone efforts of enterprises like Honda could send a signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry of the need for further development of hydrogen re-fuelling stations and associated infrastructures (as well as tackling crucial issues of fuel safety and fuel cost) that will be essential if “hydrogen energy society” vehicles are to make their way onto mass-market forecourts.to be mass-marketed.

At the moment, it is too early to call hydrogen a real, practical fuel for the future.

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