Can Hydrogen Power Save Future High Performance Cars? by Merkel Weiss
These days we’re only just beginning to explore the possibilities of hybrid performance automobiles and there are many who are already lamenting the demise of the old V8. This, as the new Shelby Mustang (200mph, really?) arrives on the scene with 662hp (0-60 in 3.5 seconds). It seems to me that there’s nothing to regret at this point – in fact V8 engines are more powerful, smoother, and available with better fuel efficient than ever before in history. Still it’s only reasonable to look forward to other fuels and wonder if they might work to save our cars as we know them now. At this point, legislation for the year 2017 has been executed by NHTSA requiring drastically lower limits of CO, HC, and NOx, and a CAFÉ of 54.5mpg by 2025. Clearly, these standards are completely incompatible with vehicles like the 2013 Shelby Mustang. And why exactly do we need hydrogen at all? The simple answer is that unlike all the other fuels that you may have heard of such as gasoline, diesel, natural gas, propane, or alcohol, it isn’t a hydrocarbon. That means that when every molecule (two atoms of hydrogen) is “combusted” and we add oxygen to extract its energy, the remainder is really nothing more than pure water. In short then, there are no emissions. So, can we actually do it?
Getting right to it, well yeah, maybe so. A lot of factors need to fall into place first. Let’s take a look at some of them in order: Utility would be the first. As in the case for the color TV in the early 60s, there were no shows in color so why in the wild world of sports should manufacturers build color sets and hope for any sales? Today we have no hydrogen refueling stations or commercially available vehicles running on the fuel. So which goes first? We need a commercially accepted and available distribution center.
We also require standards for operating temperatures and pressures which currently do not exist as anything beyond the prototype phase. Lastly we need good consumer fuel cells, which also don’t exist either. This last item is no small thing, but it can be done. It only takes time, R & D, and a whole lot of directed funding.
Honda produced with the Clarity based on the 2006 concept car FCX, a for-lease only car starting in 2010. The Clarity is a 100kW fuel-cell electric car which is hydrogen fueled. It sports a 134hp electric motor (100kW) and 189 lb-ft of torque, pushing around 3528lb of curb weight. The car is said to achieve 77 mi/kg of hydrogen in the city, and 67mi/kg highway. Currently, hydrogen costs between $5-10 per kilogram here in CA, and if we estimate an average of 60 mi/kg and a monthly range of about 400 miles, the monthly fuel cost is only as much as $65, fairly similar, to the Honda natural gas Civic.
The hydrogen fuel cell is probably the most efficient means by which to convert the chemical energy in hydrogen to mechanical energy to drive a car. Although hydrogen can also be burned directly much the same as gasoline, alcohol or natural gas, the combustion losses as heat are considerably greater than the electrical losses and so the fuel efficiency is a lot less. This most likely played into Honda’s strategy in creating the Clarity. One of the most difficult problems in the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel has been the vehicle range associated with the storage capacity in the tanks. Even under high pressures of 10K psi, the range with combustion related drivetrains has not been all that attractive. In short, the combustion of hydrogen in a vehicle will preserve the high performance aura of the piston engine, but the range will be unacceptably short. On the other hand, the adoption of a fuel cell in a performance car would produce all the charisma associated with an electric car. As modern cars get smoother and more quiet, this may not be an issue for consumers at all. I like a little drama in my high performance car, thank you very much.
Further, fuel cell vehicles tend to be heavy as a result of all the driveline components required to run the fuel cell. At this point it seems that the car would require the multiple fuel cell stacks, heat exchangers and fans, power conditioning electronics, pumps coolant and a battery pack too. Perhaps somewhere in the distant future we can go without the battery pack, but at this time the fuel cell has to come up to temperature in order to run effectively so we can think of the battery pack as the cold-start system.
BMW is currently preparing production of a couple of hybrid electric vehicles, the i4 and the i8. In particular the i8, featured in the latest Mission Impossible film, Ghost Protocol, is perhaps the first iteration of an electric high performance car. It may not be such a good test case as it’s a peculiarly German vehicle, meaning high purchase and maintenance costs, and uh, unusual BMW styling meaning like it or not. I like the overall shape, the envelope, a lot. The detailing, especially involving the color changes within the strange athletic-shoe side elevation, I find purely strange and perhaps even stunning but not at all attractive, let alone pretty. At any rate, we’ll have to see how well this car and the new Honda NSX does on the market as to whether or not electrified vehicles can take hold in the exotic car market.
I’m thinking beyond 2017 however and into the 2025 time frame when the electric car has either hit it’s stride (or not) and whether or not we can adopt the hydrogen fuel cell into a muscle car as well as an exotic. Although no one can ever know for sure what the eventual public acceptance of new technology in the public market will be, I honestly think that at this moment we have a better than even chance of pulling it off.