TORRANCE, Calif. -- Honda's fuel cell-powered FCX is quick off the line.
One reason: It is equipped with an ultracapacitor that stores electrical power for those occasions when bursts of energy are needed.
American Honda Motor Co. is not recommending the stodgy-looking compact as a drag racer. But the automaker is trying to prove that fuel cell-powered vehicles are capable of satisfying real-world performance. For most people, that includes getting away from a traffic light with vigor.
Although automakers usually don't say much about proprietary features of experimental or future vehicles, Honda officials have been quite open about their ultracapacitor. Most other automakers rely on batteries for electrical storage on their fuel cell vehicles.
The ultracapacitor, which is like a big condenser, provides "instantaneous, high-output assist," says Yozo Kami, project leader in charge of developing the FCX.
Honda executives say they chose an ultracapacitor because of its more efficient storage of energy, including energy generated from deceleration and braking.
A capacitor contains activated carbon. It stores energy physically. There is no need to wait for chemical reactions, like those in a battery, the executives add.
Each FCX ultracapacitor consists of 160 cylinders. The package is tucked behind the back seat.
Honda officials say that mass-produced ultracapacitors, consisting of graphite and aluminum, probably would be less expensive than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used by other automakers.
Bigger issues, such as materials for fuel cell stacks, increase the cost of vehicles such as the FCX. Honda officials say the FCX costs about 100 times as much as a comparable production vehicle, or about $2 million.
Question of cost
The company says cost is just one of the obstacles that will have to be overcome if fuel cells are going to be the power plants of the future.
Fuel cells combine hydrogen from a fuel source with oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction to produce electricity to power a vehicle, with water vapor as the main byproduct. If hydrogen can be obtained from clean sources, fuel cells could remove the motor vehicle from the environmental equation, say their boosters in industry and in government.
Honda has been openly touting features of the FCX, in part because it does not believe it has received credit for being a leader in fuel cell vehicle technology, spokesman Andy Boyd says.
"There's a lot of people out there talking about environmental leadership or talking about technology leadership," Boyd says. "But in terms of a manufacturer that's really taken the technology and made it as close (as possible) to a truly commercially viable vehicle, our message is, we've done that."