Clean Tech

Change is in the air

S Muralidhar | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on November 24, 2015

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With a host of new-age hydrogen-powered vehicles set to be launched, real clean technology seems a possibility in passenger cars, writes S Muralidhar

Even as the debate over whether electric vehicles are really clean tech or if they just shift the pollutants from one place (the city) to another (the suburbs) continues to simmer, there seems to be renewed hope in a new breed of hydrogen-powered cars that could hit the roads over the next few years.

Imagine the vehicle’s tail-pipe emissions being just water vapour! There couldn’t possibly be anything that is cleaner in the personal mobility space. Yes, here too, the environmental cost of isolating and processing hydrogen gas for these cars is an issue. But it is tantalising to think of the prospect of driving a hydrogen fuel-cell car that could potentially have no range limitations (unlike electrics) as long as the gas can be topped up at a station — just like filling up on petrol at the pump.

Safety concerns

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars have been around for the past 15 years and more. Of course, they have all been experimental prototypes that have been showcases of the technology that were, in the past, relegated to the ‘we are also trying to be green’ corner. In the interim, American and German car makers always seemed to be more interested in going with fuel cells and hydrogen power, while Japanese car companies continued to pour their research dollars into hybrids and all-electrics. In fact, GM had said it was more optimistic that fuel cells were the future, despite being overshadowed by the success of the Toyota Prius in the American market.

Apart from the viability of hydrogen fuel-cell cars in terms of their potential for mass manufacture and the prospects of bottling, storage and vending liquid hydrogen, the biggest concern was safety. Hydrogen is colourless, odourless and extremely flammable. But scientists and engineers say that it is safer than petrol or diesel. Yet, the public perception is only now slowly turning in its favour.

Not all talk

Daimler, BMW, Audi, Ford, and General Motors have all announced plans for new hydrogen-powered vehicles, but just like in the case with electrics, the Japanese seem poised to take a lead in this race too.

Toyota has announced the Mirai – a 4-passenger fuel-cell vehicle, Nissan is joining the race too, but Honda’s Clarity Fuel Cell sedan, showcased last month at the Tokyo Motor Show, is one of the most promising production prototypes.

Honda says that it will launch the car in the Japanese market by next March. It is due to go on sale in the US towards the end of 2016.

The new fuel-cell sedan is based on last year’s FCV Clarity concept, which was built on a completely new platform, one that is versatile enough to be used for building Honda’s next-generation plug-in hybrid electric vehicle too.

Honda has been dabbling with fuel cells for nearly two decades and the FCX Clarity – the predecessor to the current Clarity FC sedan – was offered on lease to buyers and only had a limited production run.

The new version of this fuel cell sedan will be first to be potentially mass produced and offered at a competitive price.

The reason why there is so much excitement surrounding the 2016 Clarity sedan is the fact that the cost of the fuel cell technology has been dramatically reduced. Also, there has been significant improvement in safety, reduction in size of the key components and an increase in the range of operation per tank of hydrogen gas.

The market is talking about the Honda Clarity sedan being priced in the region of about $40,000-50,000. Though that might be one expensive Honda, it would still be an affordable fuel-cell vehicle.

More clarity

The new Honda fuel-cell sedan gets a lot of new tech, but mostly it is the form that has changed, with the processes and much of the substance being the same as the predecessor’s.

To extend the operating range of the new Clarity, Honda engineers have fitted it with two hydrogen tanks instead of one earlier. The hydrogen is also stored at a higher pressure (700bar, twice that of the older tanks) in the tanks located at the rear of the car.

The liquid fuel is fed to the fuel cells where electricity is produced when there is a controlled chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

Honda’s pricing ability for the new Clarity sedan comes from this – the heart of the fuel cell vehicle.

Unlike the earlier generation of the Clarity, the new car’s fuel-cell stack is 33 per cent more compact, but still manages a 60 per cent increase in power density.

Honda says that the fuel-cell powertrain (electric motor, cell stack, power-transfer and transmission components), which is about the size of a conventional V6 engine, now fits entirely under the hood of the Clarity.

The compact powertrain helps in clearing up interior space to make the new Clarity sedan a 5-seater. But, more importantly, to produce the new fuel cell stack it costs a remarkably low 10 per cent of the older generation’s.

The new Clarity Fuel Cell sedan’s practicality can’t be questioned with this set of attributes. The hydrogen tanks can also be topped up at the station within just three-five minutes, so there is no need for range anxiety. To make it more attractive, Honda is also planning sell some nifty accessories like an inverter that can take the electricity produced by the car’s systems and use it to power domestic appliances, if need be. Thankfully, it also looks like a regular car.

 Cars like the Honda Clarity and the Toyota Mirai could be harbingers of more such hydrogen-powered transportation of the future. By 2020, every major car maker will have fuel-cell vehicles in their portfolio. But in the run up to that, hydrogen infrastructure will be the biggest concern.

 

Published on November 24, 2015
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