Fuel Cell Cars :: ride into the future

March 5, 2008 Off By Chris Hinton

Greenpeace… Friends of the Earth… it’s safe to say they aren’t exactly keen on cars because, in part, cars tend to produce some fairly nasty gasses. So what if cars didn’t do that any more? Well, there would still be the problem of roads taking up countryside space, but it would help a bit, wouldn’t it?
Cue the fuel cell car… car of the future (ta-daaah!)
OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but some major manufacturers are now getting close to producing fuel cell cars, and since I’m a sucker for new car designs I thought I’d find out more.
How do they work?
Cars have run on internal combustion engines since their invention. Very simply, combustible fuel is fed into a cylinder and then ignited to give a controlled explosion. This explosion drives a piston which is connected via gears to the drive-shaft, and propels the car. On the positive side, internal combustion engines have been around for a very long time. They work, and they have been the focus of much research to make them as fuel-efficient as possible. On the negative side, however, the burning of all that fuel gives of noxious gasses (the most dangerous being carbon monoxide), soot, some unburnt fuel, and other by-products.
Some car manufacturers (notably Toyota, Lexus, and Honda) have worked to increase the efficiency of their internal combustion engines by combining them with an electric drive system which is recharged either by using the engine itself to drive a generator, or by siphoning off energy when the car is slowing down or coasting.
Fuel cell cars, however, step away from internal combustion altogether. Instead of burning petroleum products, they combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce water and electricity. The biggest advantage of this, then, is that they produce no pollutants and can be described as being “zero emission” vehicles. To be honest, I’m a little hazy on the exact details of fuel cell technology (I plan to look into that and write further in the future), but the basic premise is that water can be separated into Hydrogen and Oxygen by passing electricity through it (electrolysis)… but by reversing the process, combining hydrogen and oxygen into water, electricity is generated instead.
Why are fuel cell vehicles cool?
Ever noticed how clean fuel vehicles usually look like the back-end of a bus? The two fuel cell concept cars I’ve found so far look pretty darned cool if you ask me. The Honda FCX concept has nicely angular lines reminiscent of the latest Civic, although the general curve overall also gives is the look of the Toyota Prius. No matter whether it looks like something else, it’s a good looking car.
Honda FCX Concept Car
Honda FCX Concept
The Morgan Life Car, on the other hand, just looks mental! Modelled on their roadster, the Life Car looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie and, once again, is good looking in a different kind of way.
Morgan Life Car
Morgan Life Car
Looks aside, though, what else makes these cars cool? Environment credentials? Kind of… Honda are currently exploring the concept of solar refuelling stations, which would turn water into hydrogen using solar power. Imagine, you fill a tank with water in the morning, leave the solar panels on all day while you’re at work, and come home to a tank of hydrogen ready to refuel your car for the next day. Much better than spending £1.10 for a litre of diesel! The only downside I can foresee with this is that hydrogen is extremely flammable, so there had better not be any leaks in the system or you might find your garage has blown up while you were out.
And lastly… fuel cell cars are new and futuristic. OK, so it’s a geeky thing to say, but I would think they’re cool for that alone!
So, can I have a fuel cell car please?
Not at the minute, no. Morgan are about to launch their concept car at the Geneva Show, and Honda are hoping to go into production in the US and Japan this year (Europe will follow at a later date). So far, there are no details on pricing from either company.