2009 Honda FCX Clarity and 2009 Volkswagen Passat Fuel Cell

The phone rings, and it's Todd Mittleman, Director of Environmental PR for Honda, and he wants to meet me so I can drive the hydrogen-powered, zero-emissions FCX Clarity.

How's this for irony? As I'm talking to Todd, agreeing to drive a couple miles of save-the-planet future fabulousness, I'm driving my friend's car, a gross polluter that he couldn't get to pass its emissions test. As a favor to him, I'm taking it to get re-tested, and it's wearing an exhaust with four catalytic converters. The exhaust was concocted by another friend of ours to get his cammed-out racing car to pass an emissions test, and the quad cats should be enough to clean the air coming from a Russian coal plant. For the short time that this exhaust is mounted to it, this car is probably producing lower emissions than the FCX Clarity switched off.

But I digress. Just last week, I drove a Chinese-market Volkswagen Passat equipped with a hydrogen fuel cell, so it looks like it's perfect timing to talk about hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles.

A fuel-cell vehicle primer
First, you have to remember that fuel-cell vehicles are essentially electric cars. However, rather than rely on a battery to store electricity, these cars generate their own electricity on-board. Hydrogen is stored in a high-pressure tank (at 5000 psi or more) and is then run through a fuel cell, which converts the hydrogen into electricity and water. The cars also have a small lithium-ion battery on board to store electricity generated during regenerative braking and to help out under acceleration. It also provides instant power - fuel cells can't react quickly enough for normal motoring, so the battery acts as buffer.

As electric vehicles, fuel-cell vehicles carry the benefits of electric cars (quiet, smooth operation, and no tailpipe emissions), but with the convenience of fuel-burning cars (quick refueling and long range.)

Volkswagen Passat fuel cell prototype
Because the Volkswagen was a prototype, an engineer accompanied us on our drive. The startup procedure apparently was complicated enough that I wasn't permitted to do it myself. The engineer sat in the driver's seat, turned the key on, and the gauges sprung to life. Where the tachometer normally resides is an amp gauge, and its needle moved around a bit as we heard what sounded like a jet fighter (albeit a quiet one) starting up. The whining noise became louder and higher pitched, and just when it sounded like the Passat was about to achieve flight, there was a huge burst of compressed air, which shot water out of the tailpipe a foot behind the car.

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