TCS Daily

Hocus Pocus

By Brock Yates - January 9, 2003 12:00 AM

As we pitch and yaw into another new year there comes the inevitable spate of optimism about new automotive breakthroughs that will break our bonds with the hated internal combustion engine. Last year we had the slap-stick Segway upright Hoover that fascinated every journalist and environmental looney except those who actually had to ride one of the little hyper-tech scooters.

This year's entry into the chimera sweepstakes comes from Honda in the form of its new FCX fuel cell vehicle, touted as the first real-world, full-size passenger vehicle to actually grace our highways and to bring salvation to the environment and the economy. On December 2nd the city of Los Angeles took delivery of the first of five FCX mini-sedans that will be used in normal government duty - presumably to help collect taxes in a state that is already $30 billion in debt, sapping its citizens of income as fast as any in the union.

Of course enviros are euphoric about the appearance of the FCX's. After all, they are the ultimate solution to the problems of oil dependence, global warming and, perhaps even to a perfect denture cream and Mad Cow disease.

You will recall the sweet simplicity of the fuel cell: brew up a little hydrogen and oxygen and out comes electricity and a few drops of harmless water vapor. No fuming hydrocarbons and other acrid effluvients, just power and water in a magical conjunction of God and science and goodbye to the gas pump forever.

But as we have observed here before, there appear to be a few speed bumps on the road to Nirvana.

While we celebrate Honda for its leading edge efforts in automotive technology, where they have operated since the first Civic arrived thirty years ago, they have been inclined to a bit of showboating on occasion. Their little gas-electric Insight Hybrid, for example, introduced in December 1999, caused a furor among the elite press. They ignored the fact that it would carry only two passengers and no luggage and cost the company perhaps twice its selling price of $20 grand. So far only 10,000 of the tiny machines have been sold, although the larger Civic hybrid and the Toyota Prius have been more successful in the market (almost 40,000 Prius have been sold). But industry experts still believe each involves a huge loss for what are essentially elaborate publicity stunts.

While most in the car business think there is a future for hybrids, the Honda FCX fuel cell effort is another matter entirely.

While the concept of mixing hydrogen and water to make electricity sounds simple, it is in fact wrought with complex and egregiously expensive problems.

A quickie summary: The FCX carries a 78 kilowatt fuel cell. It is fed by two hydrogen tanks carrying 8.3 pounds of hydrogen stored at 5000 pounds-per-square-inch (handle with care). It is a decently-sized little four-passenger sedan with cruise control, air conditioning, etc. On the surface it seems a perfectly reasonable vehicle.

And then there's the price. The five FCX's will cost Honda $1.6 million each. They will be leased to the city of Los Angeles for a mere $500 a month, which you might describe as a sweetheart deal. After all, a normal Civic sedan - which will easily out perform the FXC in every category except fuel mileage (although it will get about 35 mpg with sensible driving and is amazingly pollution free) - can be leased any where in the nation for about $200 bucks a month. If Honda were to do a similar market-based lease deal on the FCX the price would be somewhere north of $20,000 a month.

Then we have the problem of accessing the hydrogen. Honda will use a single company, Air Products and Chemicals, based in faraway Allentown, Pennsylvania and a single, dedicated fueling station. The hydrogen, by the way, will be presumably shipped 2000 miles west in monster18-wheel diesel-swilling tankers.

But if fuel cell vehicles are the wave of the future, where are we going to get adequate supplies of hydrogen? No problem, say the enviros. We could distill it from natural gas but that would make it, oops, a fossil fuel. Better yet, we can employ hydrolysis, which extracts the hydrogen from water. Water to hydrogen and back to water. Viola! Environmental paradise is on the horizon.

Except for on problem. To pull off hydrolysis requires electricity. Lots of it. Armies of ready kilowatts, zillions of volts. But aren't we already on the edge of blackouts in California with no chance of building any new power plants?

No problem. We'll use solar panels to create the juice. More clean energy. In fact, Honda has thought of that. They've got their own bank of solar panels operating in sunny Torrance, California. But they take one full week to generate sufficient power to make enough hydrogen to fill one FCX once. Cost? $40,000 a tankful.

The upshot of this exercise is this: The FCX is a showboat exercise that may bloat and distort realities facing the challenge of fuel efficient vehicles. It is possible that technology can solve the knotty problems of making a fuel cell economical and useful in the real world. Perhaps the economy of scale will produce a potential, affordable fuel-cell by 2020. So, too, may science cure cancer and the common cold, develop cold fusion and an efficient, quiet, super-sonic transport, atomic energy, perpetual motion, monorails, and cheap desalinization. But my bet is, the Honda FCX theatrics notwithstanding, the automobile fuel cell will be a member of that bevy of broken dreams for decades to come, if not forever.

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