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November 13-15, 2005
Beijing, China

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December 13-15, 2005
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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February 5-8, 200
San Diego, California
National Biodiesel Board

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February 20-22, 200
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
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June 20-23, 200
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

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Posted on  

July 30, 2002

Fuel cell car gets environmental OKs Honda expects it on road by year's end

John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer

Before the year is over, someone somewhere in California will be driving a vehicle powered by hydrogen.

That was the forecast delivered by Honda on Wednesday, when it announced that the state and federal governments had certified its new fuel cell cars.

Honda's FCX is the first fuel cell car to be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board as a low-emissions vehicle.

The car is awaiting safety and occupant protection certification from the federal government. Art Garner, a spokesman for Honda, said certification was forthcoming and that at least one fuel cell car would be on the road by the end of the year.

"This certification is a first step, but an important step, in the development of the fuel cell car," Garner said.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity and power the drive train of the vehicle.

Honda is negotiating a lease that would put one of the vehicles on the street. Garner would not say whom the company was talking to. The lessee probably will be a municipality or other government agency that has a fleet of cars and access to a hydrogen pumping station, he added.

The pumping station is the big issue, because the stations are rare. They are being installed near Los Angeles for a bus fleet that will be experimenting with fuel cell vehicles and also at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Davis. AC Transit is planning to install one in or near Oakland for its own fuel cell project.

"This is an important milestone for the automobile industry that holds the promise of cleaner air for all Americans," said Jeff Holmstead, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.

Honda hopes to have about 30 vehicles operating in California and Tokyo -- one other spot where hydrogen pumping stations are available -- in the next two to three years.

Honda plans to collect data on how well its fuel cell car holds up. Garner said the company would prefer to lease vehicles to an agency that would use them every day, in real-world environments, and put them through their paces.

The cars seat four people and have a range of about 220 miles and a maximum speed of 93 mph.

While the new technology is promising, it is still in its infancy and no one knows whether it will be the next big thing in transportation.

Fuel-cell vehicles are an improvement over electric cars, because their power supply can be taken on board, and they are cleaner than hybrid cars, which use both electric and internal combustion engines.

The downsides are their cost, which are thousands of dollars higher than standard autos, and the difficulty in developing a wide array of hydrogen pumping stations.

Some automakers have been experimenting with a process in which hydrogen is created through a chemical process involving ethanol or another petroleum- based product. That would make it easier to switch gas stations over to a different fuel type, but it also increases the cost of the individual vehicles and involves some pollution.

The Honda FCX uses compressed hydrogen as it currently works.

The fuel cell engine requires a great deal of platinum, which is expensive, said Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine. Until engineers find a different material to use, the cars will remain expensive. Even mass production won't help much, he said.

Similarly, refitting gas stations to provide hydrogen is a huge project, and producing hydrogen causes pollution because it uses electricity or other energy sources.

It will take many more years, perhaps decades, to determine whether fuel cell cars are the wave of the future, Csere said.

"The thing you have to remember is that there is no consumer demand," he said. "Polls show most people favor doing something about global warming, and then they go down to their dealership and buy a Ford Explorer."

Robert Moore, director of the Center for Fuel Cell Studies at UC Davis, said we'd know more by 2010. In that time, he said, engineers will work and rework the fuel cell technology and vehicle drive trains, and others will look for ways to deliver the hydrogen to cars in great quantities across the land.

"Really, no one can say whether this will take off," Moore said. "If I knew that, I wouldn't be sitting here talking about it. I'd be out buying stock."


Fuel cells create electricity through an electrochemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen. Vehicles running on fuel cells would need to be supplied with gaseous hydrogen extracted from a hydrocarbon fuel. This fuel could be natural gas, methanol or even gasoline, depending on the various systems under development. .

How fuel cells work

Expanded single fuel cell hown:

1. Hydrogen fuel is fed into the anode of the fuel cell. Helped by a catalyst, hydrogen atoms are split into electrons and protons.

2. Electrons are channeled through a circuit to produce electricity.

3. Protons pass through the polymer electrolyte membrane.

4. Oxygen (from the air) enters the cathode and combines with the electrons and protons to form water.

5. Water vapor and heat are released as byproducts of the reaction.



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