Honda FCX Clarity tested: Your fuel cell questions answered

Forget electric cars and stuff hybrids -- fuel cell vehicles are the future. We've just spent some time behind the wheel of a Honda FCX Clarity and we're pretty convinced this is what your kids'll be driving when you go grey.

Rory Reid
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Forget electric cars and stuff hybrids -- fuel cell vehicles are the future. We've just spent some time behind the wheel of a Honda FCX Clarity and we're convinced this is the car your kids will be driving when you go bald.

With that in mind, we've put together a little Q&A to show you what the FCX Clarity is like, help demystify fuel cell vehicles, and shed some light on how this type of car compares to more convensional rivals.

If you're ready, we'll proceed.

It's electric isn't it?

Yes, the Honda FCX Clarity uses electric energy and is driven by a 129bhp electric motor. It even has a lithium-ion battery pack. However, unlike traditional electric cars, it doesn't get its charge from the national power grid. All its electrical energy is created within the car itself when a tiny power station known as a fuel cell stack mixes chemicals to create a reaction.

How does it work?

By mixing hydrogen and oxygen. The fuel cell stack is a rectangular box that sits below the centre console. This draws hydrogen gas from a tank in the car's boot. It then mixes the hydrogen with oxygen sucked in from the front of the vehicle. When the hydrogen meets the oxygen, a chemical reaction takes place and an instant supply of electricity is created. This energy is used to drive the electric motor, which turns the front wheels.

So what's the battery for?

Sometimes, during the chemical reaction, surplus energy is created. Instead of wasting this electricity, the FCX Clarity can store it in its lithium-ion battery pack for later use -- particularly during brisk acceleration. The battery is also crucial when driving in very cold weather, as water vapour inside the fuel cell could freeze if the vehicle is used in conditions below 0 Celcius.

Once up and running, however, the Fuel Cell will work fine in cold conditions as heat is a by-product of the fuel cell process. The FCX Clarity also has a regenerative braking system, which creates electrical energy and stores it in the battery for later use.

What's it like to drive?

The FCX Clarity is eerily quiet, mostly, as there's no internal combustion engine exploding globs of petrol under the bonnet. Hit the accelerator, though, and the car leaps forward with a futuristic whine that's a bit like a plane raising or lowering its wing flaps. It's nippy, too. Honda reckons the 100kW (129hp) motor delivers performance that is in line with the grunt offered by one of its 2.4-litre engines. We didn't get the chance to really open the car up, but around town, the FCX Clarity felt sprightly enough.

What happens when I run out of hydrogen?

The car has a pretty decent 270-mile range, which should keep most of us going for quite a while. However, when you run out of hydrogen gas, you're up the creek without a paddle because there are a just two refuelling stations in the UK -- one in Loughborough and one in Birmingham.

Why isn't hydrogen readily available?

Hydrogen exists everywhere -- it's the most common element in the world and there are numerous ways to produce it. It's created (and often wasted) as a by-product of industrial chlorine production. Ironically, hydrogen is also used to remove sulphur during the treatment of petrol, meaning people actually make the stuff for the benefit of petrol-powered cars.

Even more ironic is the fact it's possible to create hydrogen from petrol through a process known as steam reformation. By literally steaming natural gas at temperatures of between 700-1100 degrees Celsius, boffins can create Hydrogen for the FCX Clarity and cars of its ilk.

Should I steam my own petrol? 

No, you'll probably kill yourself, but we wish somebody would steam the stuff. Although natural gas isn't a renewable energy source, creating hydrogen in this manner has its benefits. The process of turning natural gas into hydrogen is a fairly clean one and once you've created the hydrogen in this manner, using it in the FCX Clarity won't result in any carbon dioxide emissions.

Honda say if you were to run an FCX Clarity fuelled on hydrogen generated by steaming natural gas you would achieve a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to driving a similar car on that same amount of petrol. 

Why use hydrogen anyway?

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have many advantages over battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Firstly, refuelling a hydrogen fuel cell car takes just 3-5 minutes, whereas recharging a BEV can take several hours. FCEVs also have a much longer range than BEVs -- the FCX Clarity can travel up to 270 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, while typical electric cars runs for less than 100 miles on a single charge. FCEVs are also far cleaner than those powered by the internal combustion engine. Hydrogen is a renewable energy source and the FCX Clarity's only emissions are water.

Can I get a Honda FCX Clarity now?

It's possible. The FCX Clarity left concept vehicle status long ago and is a certified assembly line-produced car that's in commercial use in America and Japan. There are only two of the cars in the whole of Europe, but Honda has been leasing the FCX Clarity to customers in the US and Japan for $600 per month since 2002. Apparently actress Jamie Lee Curtis drives one.

Will fuel cell cars ever be mainstream?

Currently, the world of fuel cell electric vehicles is very "chicken and egg". Honda is reluctant to create more FCX Clarity fuel cell cars for the UK until there's a large enough refuelling infrastructure in place, and the policy makers of this world are reluctant to create that infrastructure until people start buying and using fuel cell vehicles.

That said, a programme called UK-HyNet (UK Hydrogen Network) has been launched with the aim of building a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in the UK. This will create five main regional clusters of hydrogen and fuel cell technology development (in London, Wales, Midlands, North East and Scotland) and will hopefully make the UK a leader in hydrogen infrastructure.

What's more, the London Mayor's office has recently announced plans to create six hydrogen refuelling stations in London by 2012.

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It's not the prettiest car in the world. But like the Toxic avenger (the world's ugliest superhero) it might just save our planet.
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The car has a pretty long wheel base, but has a relatively good turning circle and feels good to drive.
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Inside, it's powered by an electric motor, but its electricity isn't sourced from the grid. Instead, it uses a fuel cell stack to mix hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction.
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The car has a range of 270 miles and can be topped up in 3-5 minutes -- assuming you can find one of the two refuelling stations in the UK.
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The cabin is comfortable and fairly futuristic.
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You get a reverse parking camera system.
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This next-gen information hub in front of the steering wheel is all types of fancy. The topmost arc tells you how many kilowatts of energy the motor is producing or whether the regenerative braking system is charging the battery.
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The car has a built-in hard drive you can rip your CDs to.
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Here's the engine bay. No, we have no idea what's going on here except to say there's a motor somewhere below all that plastic.
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Here's the 'exhaust' pipe. Instead of smoke and carbon dioxide, its only emissions are clean water.

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