Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge
By Jim Kerr
Honda FCX Clarity
Honda’s FCX Clarity has just been named the 2009 World Green Car by 59 journalists from 25 countries around the world. The FCX Clarity is a fuel-cell powered sedan that runs on electricity generated by an on-board fuel cell stack. Its only emission is water. Currently, the car is available on a limited-lease basis to select drivers, but who knows what the future will bring? Only 12 years ago, the Clarity prototypes were rolling laboratories so full of equipment there was barely room for a driver. Today the Clarity can carry a full load of passengers and is meeting cold weather requirements. Is the fuel cell the car of the future, or will something else lead the way?
There is no doubt that concern for the environment will direct the future design of our automobiles. While emission systems in the past have been designed to eliminate or almost eliminate harmful gases and byproducts such as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, the biggest task now is to reduce the global warming potential of our vehicles. CO2 or carbon dioxide is the culprit and it is a natural byproduct of combustion, so reducing its production is a challenge.
Will a fuel cell powered car be the vehicle that can eliminate the global warming potential? Not necessarily. As sophisticated as the FCX Clarity is, we need to look at the total emissions of what it takes to propel a vehicle, and this includes producing the fuel. If the hydrogen fuel is produced from methane gas, then there is a reduction in total CO2 output and this may make it the greenest type of vehicle on the planet, but if that hydrogen has to be produced using electrolysis, then there is a net balance of zero: as much CO2 is generated, often by coal or oil-fired electrical generating plants as will be saved by driving the fuel-cell vehicle.
Few vehicles in the near future will likely be fuel-cell powered however. It is still too difficult and costly to provide the infrastructure that allows these vehicles a wide range. Instead, we will see a mix of vehicle types. Everything from the traditional (but greatly improved) gasoline engine to electric motors will move our vehicles. Let’s look at the CO2 impact of a few of these vehicles.