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Fill 'er up

An at-home system for refueling a car that doesn't pollute? It's not just a pipe dream.

June 25, 2010|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times

Imagine a world where all it took to power a car was sunshine and tap water. That isn't a pipe dream but, rather, the reality of emerging technology that someday could turn your house into a personal, zero-emission gas station.

It's called a residential hydrogen refueler, and only one currently exists. Tucked away on the Torrance campus of Honda R&D behind a security guard and a locked gate, the sleek system is designed to power Honda's limited-production FCX Clarity sedan and other hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The system uses solar panels — a 6-kilowatt array of thin-film cells, to be precise — to power a machine the size of a mini-refrigerator that sips in H2O and breaks it apart into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen is then pumped directly into the car, which uses the gas to generate electricity for the car's electric motor. No fossil fuels, no pollution, no additional strain on the power grid — and all done at home.

Welcome to the future.

How far into the future? About five years, according to statements from automakers and a "memorandum of understanding" signed in September by manufacturers such as Daimler and fuel providers including Shell. Honda, General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes and other auto manufacturers have indicated they likely will begin selling hydrogen-powered production cars to consumers in 2015.

How quickly will the home hydrogen refueler follow, and how much it will cost? Honda won't say. But it's a promising technology that advances the trend toward consumers detaching from a fossil-fuel economy and becoming more self-sufficient. It's a future in which American homes are less reliant on a large-scale infrastructure — power grids, water districts and the like — and provide at least some of the solutions themselves via solar panels, gray-water systems, rainwater harvesting and home-based car-refueling technology.

Other hydrogen fuel-cell cars already exist. Made by GM, Toyota and Mercedes, they currently are available only for lease, as with the Clarity. Most of the lessees are in "station clusters," specific geographic areas that have hydrogen fueling stations. It's the scarcity of these hydrogen stations that's seen as one of the biggest barriers to mass adoption of fuel-cell cars.

By contrast, electric cars that can plug into a home power outlet are getting most of the attention these days with the imminent arrival of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. But the enthusiasm of hydrogen-car drivers, coupled with the promise of hydrogen stations at home, indicate these fuel-cell vehicles could also be a player.

"They're going to have to break into my garage if they think they're getting this car back in three years," said Clarity driver Jack Cusick, 41. The assistant principal of Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach was talking about the burgundy-colored Honda he's been leasing for the last 18 months and will need to return in January 2012.

Cusick is one of 20 participants in the Clarity program, which began in July 2008. Almost 80,000 people worldwide had applied.

"When you hear about field testing a car, you expect to drive something that isn't necessarily duct tape and cardboard, but you don't expect it to be a fancy car," said Cusick, who used to drive a Hyundai Accent. "This is a luxury automobile."

Equipped with seat warmers, satellite radio, dual climate controls and radar-activated brakes, among other features, the Clarity is luxurious. It's also outrageously expensive — most likely worth at least $1 million because of the high cost of developing the technology and low volume of cars in production. Honda won't reveal a price for an individual vehicle, but when these cars are finally available for sale, their cost will be comparable with luxury sedans.

Cusick's lease is steep: $600 a month. He still finds the price reasonable because it includes regular maintenance, comprehensive and collision insurance as well as the cost of hydrogen. Many of the state's weights and measures departments haven't yet determined what to charge for a gaseous fuel measured in pounds of pressure rather than gallons of liquid.

Sure, Cusick has heard quips about the Hindenburg and fielded inquiries about whether the car is likely to explode — jokes he counters with questions about the Exxon Valdez.

"It's not like their cars run on Pepsi or something," said Cusick, who lives in Irvine and refuels at the hydrogen station at UC Irvine. "I'm driving a car that spits out nothing but water."

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