Monday, October 26, 2009

Japanese automakers' hydrogen vehicle drive

TOKYO – Imagine a car that can be refueled in minutes but emits just water. Sounds like science fiction? Actually it already exists -- Hollywood star Jamie Lee Curtis has one of this car. So does Honda president Takanobu Ito.

Yet while a few see them as the ultimate environmentally-friendly automobiles, the high production cost means that reasonably priced hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars are still more of a dream than veracity.

Car manufacturers such as Honda, however, are making a renewed push behind the vehicles, which run on electricity generated as a result of a reaction among hydrogen and oxygen, belching out nothing more damaging than water vapor.

"We believe that the fuel-cell electric motor vehicle will be the ultimate form for automobiles in the future," Takanobu Ito added at the Tokyo Motor Show which opened Wednesday.

"It has advantages such as zero CO2 emissions in use and it can travel considerable distances without refueling and it can be quickly refueled," he added.

Honda previous year began delivering about 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered cars on lease to US and Japanese customers, including some Hollywood celebrities.

Other automakers also spent more money on the technology, invented in the 19th century by the scientist William Robert Grove from Welsh.

Toyota, pioneer of hybrids powered by a petrol engine also by an electric motor, has said it plans to launch a fuel-cell car by the year 2015. It is applying its hybrid technology to the vehicles, swapping the petrol engine in favor of a fuel-cell stack.

"We cannot concentrate on just one technology," said Takeshi Uchiyamada, the chief engineer of the first-generation Prius hybrid.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he expects that sooner or later electric cars will be used for small distances and fuel-cell hybrids for long journeys.

Nissan as well as Mazda have developed their own fuel-cell vehicles and leased them to governments and corporate clients, whereas Suzuki Motor is showcasing a car, a wheelchair and scooter -- all motorized by fuel cells -- at the Tokyo Motor Show.

The very big challenge for manufacturers is to trim down the production cost of hydrogen-powered vehicles -- presently several hundred thousand dollars each.

"There is a feeling that by 2050 fuel cells will ultimately beat electric cars," alleged Ashvin Chotai, managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia.

"In plenty of countries wherever electricity is generated with fossil fuels electric cars are still not a perfect solution, especially in places like China and India where a large number of the energy is produced with dirty coal," he said.

The primary goal of carmakers is for hydrogen for cars to be produced by electrolyzing water by means of renewable energy such as solar power.

Fuel cells have long been seen as an eco-friendly substitute to petrol, but for the moment the majority automakers are focusing their attention on hybrids and plug-in electric cars.

Supporters, on the other hand, see hydrogen-powered cars as the natural next step because they also make use of electricity but can be refueled more quickly than plug-in cars and can travel further sooner than the power runs out.

A few industry experts see a day when compact electric cars are used for short distances and fuel cells for bigger vehicles such as trucks, because hydrogen tanks need a lot of space.

In addition to the high cost, the lack of filling stations and the size as well as weight of the fuel-cell vehicles and present hurdles.

Previous month, Toyota, Honda, Renault-Nissan, Ford, Hyundai, General Motors, Daimler and Kia issued a joint plea for an adequate hydrogen infrastructure network to be built by 2015, from when they believe "a few hundred thousand" of the cars might be commercialized worldwide.

The cause got a very important boost last week when the US Congress approved 187 million dollars in funding for research into fuel cells, seen by followers as the ultimate zero-emission solution.

"There is no way around it. A fuel-cell car gives you power, distance... It gives you short refueling time," alleged George Hansen, GM's head of fuel-cell commercialization in the Asia-Pacific.

"The technology is there and ready to be used. At present it depends on whether governments are willing to get underway the infrastructure, and whether volume production will bring costs down," George Hansen added.

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