Call me a sceptic, but I raised a curious eyebrow to this morning's news, as I went on a little ride of (possible) fantasy with the BBC as they reported on Honda's hydrogen powered car. The FCX Clarity will be powered by a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. The exhaust, crucially, will push out nothing but water vapour. This will be the future. Maybe..
You see, to me it all sounds a little familiar. During my time working for Nissan, we could provide a dual-fuel Primera if you so desired, with the 'donut' that contained the LPG fitted by a government regulated and approved company for your peace of mind. There was always a bit of a major flaw though – you could probably use up all your LPG just trying to find an LPG refuelling station. We had a list of all available stations across the UK and there weren't that many, and certainly not enough to make it anything but a potentially short lived notion.
Today it was announced that Britain's first hydrogen filling station has opened in Swindon amid a blaze of publicity. The Honda car that was featured as part of the promotion is apparently only one of two in the world, and just to dampen this solution to Global Warming a little further, it was estimated that we may be as much as 20 to 30 years away from this story becoming an everyday reality – if indeed it doesn't go the same way as LPG. So no need to rush out and update your car insurance just yet.
Put simply, the problem has always been encouraging those rather large companies that build our filling stations and provide our fuel to all subscribe as one to the latest view on reducing carbon emissions. If both car manufacturers and fuel suppliers could agree and work to a better agenda, surely the journey to salvation would be a smoother ride?
The new station in Swindon is at Honda's South Marston plant, so is this more Honda forging ahead than a common consensus of opinion? Well, Swindon Borough Council paid for the station with a grant from South West England Regional Development Agency, so maybe there's more to it than that.
Ok, so let's look at the positives then. Not only will there be zero emissions pumping out the rear, but the Honda FCX Clarity is estimated to be able to achieve a fairly practical 270-300 miles on one tank of fuel, which is far more useful than the estimated 100 miles from Nissan's electric Leaf.
Now what about safety? Well, unlike the standard fuel tank, the tank that holds LPG has to hold it's contents at high pressure, so is made with much thicker metal to withstand greater pressures, which also translates into it being better guarded against an impact. In a serious fire situation where great heat is generated, the tank also has a “blow off” valve - rather like high end mountain bike air suspension forks which are designed to release air under big hits – the idea here being that if the the contents have to come out, they are released under control. The makers say this tank is actually far safer than the normal fuel tanks we are all used to.
Hydrogen tanks are (thankfully) treated with the same respect as LPG as well, with the containers being rigourously crash tested. In 2008, General Motors stated that their version of the hydrogen fuel tanks have been “..shot and dropped out of airplanes ..” while Honda's website has a reassuring section on hydrogen safety along similar lines.
I guess the bottom line here is, that if we are happy driving around with our petrol stored in a plastic high-density polyethylene tank & being ignited by sparks (that's what happens folks) then we should trust that car manufacturers will be responsible enough to make their vehicles as safe as possible for alternative fuels. Although I think we may be living with petrol and diesel for a while yet. You can also see a related Performance Direct article on car safety in the modern world, here.