Hydrogen-powered vehicles on horizon

Carmakers, Obama clash over fuel cells vs. batteries

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is encouraging hydrogen power for the cars of the future, waving aside a decision by the Obama administration to drop the fuel-cell technology in favor of battery-run vehicles.

“Fuel-cell cars will become necessary,” said Takashi Moriya, head of Honda’s group developing this technology. “We’re positioning it as the ultimate zero-emission car.”

Honda, the only carmaker to lease hydrogen-powered automobiles to individual motorists, opened a production line last year in Tochigi prefecture to make 200 fuel-cell FCX Clarity sedans, the model being leased in a trial in Los Angeles.

The Obama administration sought to eradicate hydrogen-station funding and instead lend $1.6 billion to Nissan Motor Co. and $465 million to Tesla Motors Inc. to make electric cars and give $2.4 billion in grants to makers of lithium-ion batteries.

“Honda has a propensity to think very long term,” said Ed Kim, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif. “It’s also part of the company culture that if they’ve made a decision they think is correct, they’ll really stick with it.”

Honda is not the only one, Toyota Motor Corp., Daimler AG, General Motors Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. say hydrogen, the universe’s most plentiful element, is among the few options to replace oil as a low-carbon transportation fuel.

Steven Chu, U.S. Energy Secretary, said in May his department would “be moving away” from hydrogen, as it is unlikely the United States can convert to the fuel even after 20 years. Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn forecast electric vehicles may grab 10 percent of global auto sales by 2020.

Hydrogen, mainly made for industrial use from natural gas, costs about $5 to $10 per kilogram for vehicles in California, more than double an equivalent amount of gasoline. The Energy Department calculate approximately future prices for hydrogen will fall to $2 to $3 a kilogram.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda quoted earlier this month that his company plans consumer sales of fuel-cell cars within six years. Toyota, like Honda, is making “exponential progress” with fuel-cell technology, said Justin Ward, manager of Toyota’s U.S. advanced powertrain program.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that blends hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as its byproduct. As the change of the fuel to energy takes place via an electrochemical process, not combustion, the process is clean, quiet and highly efficient — two to three times more efficient than burning fuel, scientists say.