• Nov 26th 2007 at 10:24AM
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In this second part of our chat with Honda's Stephen Ellis we continue our discussion of the Honda Home Energy Station and get into the costs and practicality of hydrogen as a fuel. Read part one here.

ABG: What kind of efficiency are you are looking at right now for the Home Energy Station? How long does it take to produce how much hydrogen? How efficient is the process? How would the cost of operating such a device compared to what we use today?

SE: I think Home Energy Station puts into perspective that here we are now removing the tail pipe from the equation of emissions and now looking to the upstream. So whether it is the energy to charge an electric vehicle, a plug-in hybrid or to fuel any other car we have to look to the upstream.

Home Energy Station is a research project still that is targeting these efficiencies such that we have this near 50 percent CO2 reduction on a well-to-wheel basis when matched with hydrogen fuel cell car. And that is again taking advantage of these efficiencies. Today, using steam methane reformation of making hydrogen from natural gas in these large plants, we have shown this graphically that we have over 50 percent CO2 reduction when combined with the FCX. This new FCX using that same process now will moves that to 60 percent. So that's a step in the right direction.

(Q&A continues after the jump)

ABG: That is the well-to-wheel efficiency of the whole system?

SE: So, if we can achieve that with Home Energy Station then add the value of cost reduction. Now we have a value equation that people can aspire to.

ABG: Is something like the Home Energy Station, something that you could see perhaps within the next decade or is it farther out as far as something people might be able to install in their homes?

SE: No, definitely within the next decade. We will see some deployments of that. This is the fourth generation that we are showing here today, that is what the press release covers. In each generation it just keeps getting better. Smaller, more efficient, greater values and we will reach a point where we then move it from behind the fence at Honda R&D to deploying it in some customer deployments for more demonstration. Then that offers the opportunity to learn from that and looking into the value equations for bringing into production.

ABG: As far as the cost of the fuel cell stack today, how is that looking right now? GM, for example, has indicated that their goal is to get the cost of their fifth-gen fuel cell stack that they recently announced, in volume production down to $50 a kilowatt by end of the decade. Where is your stack standing as far as cost goes? Are you in similar price range?

SE: We are not naming numbers like that Sam, but the V-flow stack of this latest generation clearly demonstrates that shift, that movement from this traditional hand-built process to mass manufacturability. I toured the labs, at Honda R&D, and saw both the research side of it and also the production side of it and it is extremely impressive to see the advances that have been made.

So when we dissected this and you think about the stamped metal plates for example, how we're applying at the sealing gasket surfaces to that, eliminating the parts necessary, making this so it can be assembled on a assembly line process. That in and of itself is a massive step to the cost reduction. So the numbers, our engineering team will do presentations and announcements and SAE papers as they choose to take that in public but clearly this is on the right track.

ABG: Obviously, you're not prepared to talk about volume targets right now and I think the first couple of years as your market base is fairly small, it is going to be pretty low volumes. Assuming that hydrogen fueling infrastructure becomes available, what sort of time frame would you see getting to volumes upwards of 10,000 units a year? Is that something you might perceive by the middle of next decade or is it farther out than that?

SE: Well, our president once said that it might be by 2018 that we will achieve the next level of cost reductions and manufacturability to make hydrogen fuel cell cars equivalent in price to let's say a high priced sports car or something like that. So between now and let us say that ten year period of time we will keep working on making the advances. But yes, it sounds fair to say, let's look at where we are at ten years from now and time will tell.

I think that is the risk of trying to set a number by a certain date because there are so many variables that we cannot always control. So the important thing is that we are on the right track within a ten year window of time. I think we will see in great advances made both in obviously the technology of the product but also in the ramp up, the volume of cars that are deployed.

ABG: Since you are responsible for alternative fuel programs at Honda, maybe if you could talk for a moment about some of the other things that are going on. Is there any work being done, if you can talk about it, as far as battery electrics or is that something you cannot discuss at the moment.

SE: I know that you are looking for specific answer. We tend to get more generalized and the door is open for everything. I think that is the key. One of the interesting aspects of this car is that we are deploying with a lithium ion battery.

As you know, the application of that lithium ion battery has a big bearing on these issues of its durability and any other issues. So in this application we have great confidence. It is still fair to say that we feel we have ways to go with advances in battery technology to deploy one where you are truly cycling it through its full range and having it achieved the life that would be expected and of course the cost is very much connected to that.

ABG: Right now, with batteries it is very much a case of you have price, weight and capacity. You can have any two of those three.

SE: You understand. So I think, Sam, going back to the very first interview where I talked about batteries. That was probably eight years ago. Some of the same challenges still exist today while recognizing the advances that have been made. We are going to do the right thing and the best thing we can do at the right time. Everyone wants to know when we are going to do a plug-in hybrid vehicle? When are we going to do a pure battery EV?

We are not going to make announcements like that until it becomes a strategic plan to do so. But again, the door is open and we have to look at these technologies. So the shift from the ultra-capacitor in the previous car as the energy storage device to this lithium ion technology illustrates that very point that we look at what is the best technology to suit us. For this car we have determined it's a lithium ion battery and so be it, we've done that. When applied with the fuel cell vehicle like this and exercising it through that kind of narrower range, we have great confidence.

So, you had asked me about the 5,000 PSI versus 10,000 PSI. One other aspect of that to keep in mind, We have just achieved this significant improvement in range at that same 5,000 PSI pressure. So we have not just, let us say, thrown pressure at the vehicle to accomplish this range improvement.

To put that in perspective, the very first cars that we have delivered to the City of Los Angeles just five years ago were EPA rated at about a 170 mile range. Today, only 10 percent more fuel, we are at 270, so we add it up 100 mile range to those first vehicles that we delivered with only 10 percent more fuel. So that says that pressure is not the answer. It is one way. It is one part of the equation of improving the vehicle range.

But here again is a car that has better range than our natural gas powered Civic, that thousands of people drive in Southern California day in and day out using a small natural gas refueling network. So if one said, "What is the model that exists to show some confidence that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can succeed? Well, certainly that is based on the question, how do you define success and what would you constitute as a market. So, thousands of people driving natural gas vehicles with 200 to 220 mile range.

Today in Southern California, that is exactly what people do, using the oil with 25 percent CO2 reduction and the ability to refuel from home. So when we say, those drivers are apprentices for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, now I think more and more people see why. But we can make the advances. We can achieve range without solely relying on more pressure.

ABG: Obviously adding more fuel is the easy way to do it, relatively speaking. Obviously you made improvements at the fundamental level or the root level to improve the overall efficiency of the system rather than just adding more fuel to the equation.

SE: And even weight reduction. We are of course looking at 10,000 PSI. You have to. This is not rocket science. Someone said to me "Hey, even I, could do the math." I understand that 10,000 PSI using the exact same tank size envelope in the vehicle might give you, for example 50 percent more range. So take the 270 mile range, do the math on that. See there is an example of what could be achieved just by doing that but today we are going to learn a lot with vehicle that goes 270 miles.

ABG: And within the scope of what you are trying to do with this program right now that 270 mile range is probably good enough for the time being, for the next few years until the refueling infrastructure expands and becomes more available.

SE: Yes, I myself was one of the first drivers of a Civic GX natural gas, drove it to Las Vegas. And I knew that done wrong, I could fail. Not so much the trip there because when you think about that trip, once you climb out of the LA basin and you're kind of up in high desert. You have got a couple of roller coasters to go over there and then it is down hill for the last 40 miles. Turn that trip around; your first 40 are uphill.

ABG: That becomes a problem.

SE: And then you have make it to Victorville. With the installation of one station, now, I can tell people confidently, Sure, you can drive with natural gas to Las Vegas. So that again is a model of what type of hurdles we have to cross for a hydrogen fuel cell car. So here is a car of a greater range than a Civic GX that again with one hydrogen station between Southern California and Las Vegas and there already is a hydrogen station there on that end in Las Vegas because we are leasing the current FCX to the City of Las Vegas. So just one station say at the Bun-Boy there would accomplish the goal of letting this car have the utility of driving between here and Vegas.

ABG: I think that feeds into that whole idea that you don't necessarily have to have hydrogen available at every single gas station in this country to make it a viable alternative.

SE: And then it is just a matter of connecting those dots and then bridging those gaps and then again when our natural gas Civic first launched it was very difficult to drive it from here to there. Now, I know that a half of dozen people that do it every month. So there is a model that exists. Today, with the introduction of FCX Clarity I think we have clearly advanced electric vehicles.

ABG: Great, thanks for your time today Steve.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Well, I don't want to enter into a indeep discussion. But I'm partly misunderstood. When I say that we all agree I just refer to that if there is a battery that fullfills all the needs we don't need hydrogen. Fullstop. Industry sometimes is a bit unflexible but they are not stupid. If there is a battery we will just have electric vehicles in the future. Because (like hydrogen) electricity can be produced from any renewable or fossil source.

      To compare the Tessla for example with the new GM Equinox or the FCX we clearly see differences in the vehicle. Putting the Tessla drive train into a equinox would end up in half of the range of the hydrogen version (just gessing, don't count numbers here). We can talk about "smarter" mobility but that is another discussion.

      I was heavily involved in well-to-wheel calculations together with automotive and oil industry. Results can be found here (for those who wants to know the details) http://ies.jrc.cec.eu.int/wtw.html

      Generally a lithium-ion battery has inherently too many restrictions. For example never store them without fully loaded, capacity at very low temperatures and clear limitations in lifetime when not treated the right way, sensitivity to too high voltage (burns). My cellphone batteries never reached their announced cycles. Sorry, that is not something industry can count on. But there might be other batteries, who knows?

      A fuel cell car will always be a hybrid. Why not a plug-in hybrid. That works, because a hybrid battery is typically never below 80% of full capacity. That is why the Prius battery works so well. A refill of a 70 MPa hydrogen storage tank is about 3.5 minutes. No problem here.

      One thing to "TIM". I can't remember that somebody forced us to become oil edicted. We became it on a voluntary basis. I agree that the use of renewable energies will free us from many things. And hydrogen could be the enabler because it makes electricity storable. If there is a more efficient solution. Just do it, we welcome any chance to reduce costs!

      My message is, remain open.
      • 7 Years Ago
      roz: Sorry, but if I give Honda credit for anything in this particular instance, it is for adding to the hydrogen hype. I mean, if you're going to use natural gas anyway, why not put it into the car instead of the hydrogen? In point of fact, our local gas company drives its vehicles with natural gas right now!

      "H2 generation can happen from renewable sources"? Then why not PUT the solar/wind electricity directly into the vehicle instead of wasting a huge percentage of it to make hydrogen? Especially since then the fuel cell's energy efficiency ends up much less than with batteries?

      You might want to consult this .pdf that summarizes Ulf Bossel's comparison of hydrogen and batteries:


      Of course, maybe his percentages are flat-out wrong...?! If so, please post a source with more encouraging percentages!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Following the discussion I think we all agree that if there is a battery that is reliable (let's say good for 100,000 miles minimum), cost competitive to a fuel cell system (in mass production), quick in recharge (let's give it 5 minutes for recharge) and that provides a range of at least 400 miles to go, well then we should stop talking about hydrogen. And by saying that I'm a clear advocate for hydrogen.

      What we can see now is that a fuel cell car like the FCX fulfills all this needs already today, except of the costs. They have to work on it.

      At the same time there is no (and has never been) a battery vehicle fulfilling all this needs. And by saying that we all have to face reality, the battery guys are working on this for decades. Because also my notebook computer could need a better battery!.

      It's still an open race but the fuel cell vehicle is clear ahead. That does not mean that this couldn't change. We have to be open.

      Natural gas (or bio gas) as a source for hydrogen can just be part of the initial supply solution. But why not replace it step by step (let's say 3% per annum) by renewable electricity? Consider it as a transition strategy!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Buried in all this optimistic talk is a really stunning admission of failure and defeat. SE says Honda aim to have hydrogen cars ready for mass production "equivalent in price to let's say a high priced sports car" by around 2018.

      He's saying, straight up, that by 2018 they expect to get hydrogen cars to reach the same point where BEVs will be in 2008. By 2018 I would fully expect there to be millions of BEVs and PHEVs on the road, and nobody will give a damn about hydrogen anymore.

      • 7 Years Ago
      Blandow, To clear up a little misunderstanding: Toyota hybrids keep the NiMH battery at a charge level between 85% and 35% of full "State Of Charge". This maximizes the battery life, 10 years or more, and is the reason why Toyota can offer a very long warranty. Tesla Motors is using a similar strategy with their Roadster for the same reason, it will not charge the LiIon batteries more than 95% of maximum, and the user can choose from 85% to 95% maximun charge level, trading off between driving range and battery longevity.

      On the other hand, devices like cell phones and laptops are designed for maximum run time, not maximum battery life, as the manufacturer assumes they will be obsolete and replaced in a few years anyway. They charge up to 100%, and deep discharge as well, which is why you should only expect a few years of use at most.

      You cannot assume the lifespan of automotive batteries will be the same as with cell phone and laptop batteries. The battery management is vastly different.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Blandow: "5 minutes for recharge"? I rather suspect that it would take longer than that to safely refill those high pressure H2 tanks, due to gas velocity and thermal problems. Metal hydride storage would take much longer, due to the need to cool the metal alloys while it absorbs the H2.

      Of course, you chose that figure since you knew that 10 minute recharges had already been proven possible.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I was at first intrigued to read about the Clarity, especially after seeing an ad for it on TV yesterday. But... yow! By 2018??? For the cost of a high priced sports car??? You can put that kind of money down on a Tesla Roadster right NOW! And the range is already in the same ballpark. Moreover, you can refuel it anywhere there is a plug --not just at hydrogen stations.

      Besides, can you make natural gas on the roof of your house to extract the hydrogen with that "Home Energy Station"? I must be missing something. Won't natural gas --like crude-- eventually run out? I'll forego this so-called "solution," thanks. Hard to believe Honda is pursuing this.
      • 7 Years Ago
      It made my day when I read about Honda's intentions. More than 30 years ago in engineering school we discussed the fact that eventually we would end up with an all hydrogen energy economy. The ever inflating costs of fossil fuels are helping to drive that reality.

      With three decades of experience in electronic and mechanical product research and development I've spent the majority of my career in energy and instrumentation innovation. I've followed the hydrogen economy issue closely over the years. I have no doubt that we will continue to reduce costs of fuel cell production and make further innovations in production, storage and transport of hydrogen gas. Given time we will be harvesting energy from the sun at home for production and storage of hydrogen for transport, heating, cooling and other purposes. Transitions are usually difficult and we need not be as short sighted as many of the comments I've read here. Our infrastructure WILL develop to accommodate hydrogen and we will all enjoy the benefits.

      Look at the benefits of this hydrogen Honda: A greatly simplified and highly efficient auto with a very simple transmission with no clutches or gears to shift and regenerative braking easily available from a simple one moving part electric motor. In time the Lithium Ion buffer supply may be replaced with super capacitors with nearly unlimited cycle life. This Honda provides almost 250% improvement in fuel economy, a quiet and comfortable ride all with fully recyclable benign exhaust and a nearly solid state power plant with solid state regenerative deceleration for slowing or down hill energy recovery. No more complex engines with 70% thermodynamic losses and leaking or freezing cooling systems, no highly complex limited service life transmissions, no emission controls or no smog test stations. We've done a great job of keeping the century old internal combustion engines alive but the need to move forward is long overdue.

      Clearly we are moving in the right direction. We need to let technological and economic foresight chart our direction rather social inertia. We need not be victim of the social mentality that prevented our transition to metric measurement in the mid seventies leading the USA to be the laughing stock among other countries. If we fail to aggressively pursue energy technology innovation and necessary shifts in our infrastructure then the impact on our existence could be considerably more serious than our antiquated measurement system. Imagine what would happen if we invested as heavily in energy independence as we have in military defense and perpetuation of our petroleum based economy.

      Honda, GM and anyone else who has the foresight to move technology in the direction in must move deserves our support and profound thanks.

      Dennis L. Vories, P.E.
      Consulting Engineer

      • 7 Years Ago
      Just to be clear, Honda makes a car that other say can't be done. Gotta give them credit for that.

      In terms of comparisons to Tesla and BEV. We don't have a solution yet to the problem of oil dependency for mobility so I'll give credit to anyone who works on a solution. The Tesla is a cool car but very small and light. Its not clear what sort of range their bigger offerings will have. The fact that this full sized passenger car has a 250 mile range from the start is pretty amazing. With refueling stations in the right locations its really a viable option.

      BEV have drawbacks too:
      Cost of batteries does not seem to be declining that fast
      Slow recharges limit range
      No one talks about the energy and resources needed to make Li-Ion batteries and how long they last.

      H2 generation can happen from renewable sources.

      Apparently Honda thinks it will be easier to improve Fuel Cell stacks than batteries. Maybe they are wrong, but they seem to know what they are doing. Hard to say this is not a sincere effort.

      • 7 Years Ago
      I've noticed Ford put lithium batteries in their latest fuel-cell SUV, too. Giving the car companies the benefit of the doubt, this seems like a good way to get real world experience with Li-ion batteries while staging an "orderly retreat" away from fuel cells. Just keep bumping up the battery pack size until the fuel cell is little more than a range extender.
      • 7 Years Ago

      "100,000 miles minimum"? Is that how far Clarity's fuel cell will last? The same as the Tesla's ESS battery pack? And the replacement would cost about the same, too, I suppose: about $20,000. Right?

      "5 minutes for recharge"? That's how long it takes to recharge the Clarity with hydrogen? Wow! Half the time it takes to charge Altairnano's batteries. What's the hurry, anyway? It takes 3.5 hours to fully charge the Tesla from "empty." Aren't you even going to stop for lunch while driving cross-country?

      "A range of at least 400 miles"? The Clarity will go that far? I though I read here at Autoblog Green it would only go 270 miles, i.e., a mere 25 miles further than the Tesla's EPA rating. Of course... is there a hydrogen fueling station every 400 miles across the country? I think there is a plug at least every 245 miles, isn't there? In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if there is an RV park (with 240v outlets) every 245 miles.

      "Except of the costs." Bingo. According to this interview, the Clarity wouldn't be for sale at least another 10 years --and only then for the comparable price of a Tesla right NOW.

      Sorry, but I don't think that "we all agree." Unless and until somebody can provide actual figures to show that hydrogen can be just as cost effective, and as energy efficient, as electricity... I, for one, must disagree.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Many organizations are working together to move us toward a hydrogen economy. Over the last several weeks, the National Hydrogen Association has witnessed progress at many levels. The announcement from Honda about the FCX Clarity and the Home Energy Station reflect only part of the larger picture. Great strides are being made in hydrogen technologies every day;, researchers from the University of Virginia discovered new materials that vastly improve hydrogen storage, and Penn State University researchers discovered a new process to produce hydrogen from renewable resources. Furthermore, the National Science Foundation announced that it will provide a $1.5 million dollar grant to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for fuel cell research.

      Even though Steve Ellis anticipates mass production in ten years, let’s remember it places an organization in a bad position to over promise, especially when it comes to brand-new technologies. Although companies such as Honda, General Motors, BMW and Daimler are investing heavily to provide us with hydrogen cars, it is as much people’s responsibility to integrate them into their daily lives. If the public is supportive of the technology, it will help to support the rapid deployment of hydrogen products.

      There is continued public debate over which is better, the hydrogen or electric car, when in reality, both can (and should) gain implementation. The answer to our energy needs is not a single option, but instead a portfolio of resources and technologies – hydrogen is the key that will link them all together in the future. In fact, Fuel cell cars are electric cars. The same motor that is used in battery operated cars will be used in hydrogen fuel cell cars. And to address a question above – currently hydrogen vehicle refueling takes 5-10 minutes, the same as to fill up your current car with gasoline.

      Electric cars share similar hurdles as hydrogen cars. Many electric car advocates believe that it is easy to just plug in the car and go. What about those individuals who lack garage or a designated parking space at their residence? Many people do not have a garage or place to easily recharge an electric car, especially in metro cities like New York City and Chicago. Although energy companies continue to be ridiculed for their lack in investing in alternative fuels, the reality is, they are. Shell, recently opened a hydrogen fueling station in northern New York. Many other utility and energy companies are working together and have active hydrogen and alternative energy programs to develop solutions for the mass production and delivery of hydrogen fuel.
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