Honda drives toward home solar hydrogen refueling

Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:29pm EST

* Hydrogen car FCX Clarity to go to market around 2018

* Carmaker touts solar-powered home refueling option

* 48 solar panels for 10,000 miles per year

By Mary Milliken

TORRANCE, California, March 12 (Reuters) - Coming not so soon and probably not to a house near you is the home solar hydrogen refueling station -- Honda Motor Co's (7267.T) latest idea in its drive to make hydrogen the fuel of choice for zero emission cars.

The Japanese auto giant believes hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles offer the best long-term alternative to fossil fuels and the company showed on Friday a refueling breakthrough that it says points to a home version down the road.

Most major automakers have spent billions of dollars in researching hydrogen-powered fuel cells, tempted by the idea of a car that uses no gasoline and emits only water vapor. But Honda is widely seen as the hydrogen leader, while others like General Motors GM.UL put more effort into battery-powered electric vehicles like the upcoming Volt.

One of the big barriers to hydrogen car deployment is the lack of refueling infrastructure, leading Honda to bet that the future lies in combining a public station network with a more modest home option.

Honda's home option will comprise a solar-powered hydrogen refueling station using solar panels.

"Customers can choose how they interact with both of them based on their annual miles and their habits," said Stephen Ellis, fuel cell manager at the Honda's North American headquarters in Torrance, California.

'BIGGEST PROGRESS'

"The key thing to remember is that with five-minute refueling you are good for another 240 miles," Ellis added.

That range comes from the "fast-fill" public station, of which there are just a handful in Southern California, where Honda leases 15 FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered vehicles and is set to distribute more in coming months.

Eight hours of home solar refueling would guarantee a smaller range of 30 miles (50 km) or about 10,000 miles (16,000 km per year -- enough for an average commuting car.

At the Los Angeles R&D center, engineers refueled the sleek FCX Clarity sedan with a new single-unit station connected to a solar array that replaces a two-unit system, cutting costs and improving efficiency by 25 percent.

"This is wonderful progress, the biggest progress," said Ikuya Yamashita, the chief engineer of the station.

The station uses a 6-kilowatt solar array, composed of 48 panels and thin film solar cells developed by a Honda subsidiary. It breaks down the water into hydrogen in what Honda calls a "virtually carbon-free energy cycle."

The FCX Clarity's hydrogen "stack" -- or the electricity generator -- is around the size of an attache case, tucked between the two front seats, and is a fifth of the stack size developed a decade ago.

The car is likely to be sold commercially around 2018 in the luxury large sedan category, while the solar hydrogen refueling system could move beyond the research stage and into the market-ready phase around 2015.

"A lot of this work is not necessarily for today's economic situation," said Ellis. "This is for tomorrow, when most people feel energy prices will be higher." (Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta; Editing by Gary Hill)