Japanese spearhead fuel-cell comeback

Published Feb 8, 2016


Munich - Even environmental activists are delighted by the squeaky-clean tailpipe emissions produced by the new Honda FCX Clarity.

The white clouds wafting from the exhaust consist of harmless water vapour, giving this car the greenest street credibility that money can buy.

The striking five-seat sedan, which is due to go on sale in Europe later this year, uses a fuel cell, which converts hydrogen into electric power. The styling is futuristic, but the Clarity still looks like an everyday car.

Fuel cells can be found in buses and some trucks around the world, but the ultra-clean technology has been held back by cost and infrastructure problems.

Now it seems to be resurging. The development is driven by the realisation that more powerful batteries for all-electric cars are not around the corner.


The low range of EVs is hampering sales and carmakers are returning to a technology written off decades ago as too expensive.

“The fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to make electricity. The electricity then powers the electric motor, which in turn propels the vehicle. Water is the only by-product the FCX Clarity FCEV leaves behind,” says Honda in publicity material for the Clarity, which was unveiled at last year's Tokyo motor show.

The hydrogen is contained in dual tanks made of a composite material and located where the fuel tank of a conventional car would be.

Toyota has been selling fuel-cell cars for around six months. Its model name Mirai, which is Japanese for “future,” reflects the high hopes which the brand has for the technology, explained project leader Yoshikazu Tanaka.

South Korean maker Hyundai claims it was the first car company to present a next-generation FCV, well before the Japanese. It opted to slot a fuel-cell under the bonnet of the chunky, standard-issue ix35 rather than design a new car around it. Several hundred of them have been sold.

Toyota's Tanaka sees a bright future for hydrogen power: “After all, compared to mineral oil, supplies of this gas are theoretically limitless,” said the engineer.

“Not only that. Production and consumption are entirely carbon neutral,” said Tanaka.

Hydrogen is easier to store than electricity and FCVs can travel much further without having to stop for fuel. “To get a range of 500 kilometres out of a battery, even a quick charger will need 30 minutes to replenish [it],” said a Honda development man, Thomas Brachmann. “The Clarity can refuel in under three minutes”.


Despite the advantages compared to battery power, some experts are unconvinced that hydrogen marks the way forward.

“Hydrogen can only be called clean if it is created using regenerative energy,” said car industry guru Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, who teaches at Duisburg-Essen University. “We are a long way from achieving that.”

The lack of hydrogen refuelling stations and methods of delivering hydrogen are bugbears which critics have often cited.

In recent years Asian makers have been keen on the fuel cell, but enthusiasm is spreading to Europe. Daimler has been working on the technology for some time now and research is being coordinated with partners Ford and Renault-Nissan. The aim is to come up with a marketable FCV by 2017.

BMW has been using its link-up with Toyota to fettle a fuel-cell-powered car and has so far built five road-going prototypes on the basis of the 5 Series GT, said BMW propulsion research division head Matthias Klietz.

Volkswagen could use fuel-cell power to boost its image in the wake of its emissions-rigging scandal, but has so far lagged. Premium subsidiary Audi has intensified FCV efforts, said Audi fuel cell development chief Immanuel Kutschera.

After fielding a modified A7 in 2014, Audi took the h-Tron study to the recent Detroit car show. Based largely on the upcoming Q6 soft-roader, the four-seat concept uses about a kilogram of hydrogen every 100 kilometres.

Kutschera does not share all the optimism of his Japanese colleagues.

Honda plans to sell at least 200 of the Clarity this year while Toyota is looking to shift 30 000 Mirais.

Audi is mulling a works fleet of FCVs for extensive trials. Like his BMW colleague Klietz, the Audi engineer doubts whether the time is ripe for fuel cell cars. “I don't think we will be seeing it happen this decade.”


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