A Week Without Dinosaurs

Times staff writer Dan Neil last wrote for the magazine on driving a Ferrari in L.A.

An ancient Hindu myth held that the world rides on the back of an elephant. The Iroquois believed it was a turtle. In the age of science, we know different: It’s a dinosaur.

Fossil fuel--coal, oil and natural gas, the buried recrudescence of life on Earth, eons in the making--provides most of the world’s energy, 85% of the 411 quadrillion BTUs consumed in 2002. As for transportation, with the exception of bicycles and nuclear warships, just about every machine that flies, floats or rolls is powered by petroleum.

And then there is this car: a borrowed Honda FCX, a fuel-cell electric runabout powered by solar-generated hydrogen. For one week, while fellow commuters continue to pour gasoline--that most globally troublesome liquid--down the necks of their cars and trucks, I am above all that. I’m driving pharmaceutical-grade California sunshine: hydrogen generated in an experimental solar-powered station at Honda R&D; America’s facility in Torrance.


I use no fossil fuel, and I am filled with an efflorescing sanctity. I am greener than thou. As I sit stalled in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway, the skyline undulating in the haze, I have a clear conscience, and a moment of clarity. I have climbed down from the dinosaur’s back.

It’s been a tough year for car enthusiasts. Way back in 2003, automotive technology was all about who would build the first 1,000-horsepower supercar and whether the automatic parking assist would help Hummer owners bring their monsters in for a landing. Those were good times--before $2.50 per gallon for gasoline, and before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which many suspect is oil adventurism disguised as nation-building. Back then the measure of vehicle technology was miles per hour. Now it’s miles per gallon. A cheerless parsimony has descended on us. We have become energy geeks.

In mathematical terms, the system that we hoped was open is, in fact, closed. As of this writing, a barrel of sweet crude is selling for a record $45 and world oil production is running full speed. Tight oil supplies are applying brakes to economic growth at home and abroad. We are teetering on the Hubbert Peak of oil production, named after the geophysicist Dr. M. King Hubbert, who predicted world oil reserves would begin to dry up in the first decade of the 21st century. Asia is consuming about 13 million barrels per day, compared to the U.S. consumption of about 20 million daily. By 2025, Asia’s petroleum consumption is expected to triple, and China alone will have more cars and trucks on the road than America.

And the sky is most definitely the limit. Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, vehicle tailpipe emissions in the U.S. have been reduced by 90%, but these gains are being offset by more cars and more driving. Air quality in many cities has actually gotten worse in the past decade, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which estimates the public health cost of transportation-related emissions at more than $40 billion per year.

The more you know, the worse you feel. It’s easy to mock the stresses of an affluent, post-industrial life--commuting to work in an air-conditioned car beats our ancestors’ half-starved marches across the plains--but we oil consumers know a special kind of suffering. We have learned to internalize a nagging guilt, to cope with the psychic wind shear that comes with hastening to our doom at 80 miles per hour.

This angst is a kind of background noise you might not be aware of unless, like me, you find yourself suddenly outside the problem. Within the first 10 minutes of driving the solar-hydrogen FCX, I have an experience I can only compare to being cured of tinnitus. Suddenly, silence.

Most auto manufacturers have fuel-cell vehicle research programs. Honda’s program is indisputably the most advanced. The company’s FCX fuel-cell car--the first of its kind to be certified as a zero-emission vehicle by the EPA and CARB--swept last year’s Bibendum Challenge competition for fuel-efficient cars. This year, Honda unveiled its own proprietary fuel-stack design (the fuel-cell unit in the test vehicle was built by the Canadian company Ballard). The new unit is 20% more fuel efficient, cheaper to build and more cold resistant (fuel cells tend to ice up in subfreezing weather).

The FCX is unusually robust for a fuel-cell car. When other manufacturers allow journalists to drive their fuel-cell cars, there is usually a minivan full of PhDs following in case something goes wrong. Honda just throws you the keys. Currently five FCXs are leased to the city of Los Angeles for administrators’ use, and they receive no more than ordinary care and maintenance.

On a Monday morning, I am met by Ben Knight, vice president of Honda R&D; America. He gives me a kindergarten explanation of the physics. Tall and courtly, Knight may be the smartest person I have ever met, a calculus-in-his-head type who is able to look at complex engineering systems and see fields of force and flux within them, like the character Neo seeing the machine coding of the matrix.

Honda, he says, takes a holistic approach to fuel-cell technology, which encompasses not only the vehicle but also the infrastructure, the production, storage and supply of the hydrogen. The goal is to zero out fossil fuel, tailpipe and greenhouse gas emissions in the automotive cycle.

Honda is also tackling perhaps the thorniest problem of all: where to get the hydrogen.

An explainer: Hydrogen is very amorous, bonding promiscuously with all sorts of other elements and compounds. To use it as fuel, it’s necessary to liberate it from its chemical entanglements. The most concentrated sources of hydrogen are, in fact, hydrocarbons (uh-oh, the dinosaur rears its ugly head). Almost all commercial hydrogen is formed by processing, or “reforming,” a fossil fuel feed stock, usually natural gas. The FCXs leased to the city refuel at a natural-gas reforming station at the city’s motor pool.

As hydrogen skeptics eagerly point out, such an approach does little to reduce reliance on fossil fuel, and it creates yet another problem. Once you extract hydrogen from a hydrocarbon, what do you do with the carbon, a primary component in greenhouse gases? At the moment, carbon sequestration technologies--where carbon is squirreled away somewhere, perhaps underground, perhaps undersea--are a patchwork of untested theories and small-scale experiments.

And so the screaming hot-rod of futurists’ imagination is, fundamentally, a system: a fuel-cell vehicle powered with hydrogen formed with renewable, carbon-neutral energy such as solar, wind or biomass.

On the R&D; facility’s back lot is a sail-like structure that shelters Honda’s solar hydrogen refueling station. Flanking it is a long, blue-black stretch of photovoltaic (PV) panels about 700 square feet in area, canted at 35 degrees, the optimal angle for solar collection for the latitude of Los Angeles.

The panels generate on average about 6 kilowatts of electricity between sunrise and sunset. That electricity is used to electrolyze water--to separate it into its constituent gases of hydrogen and oxygen. You can, of course, hydrolyze water with grid electricity, but that energy is largely generated at coal- and gas-fired power plants, with their attendant greenhouse emissions. The dinosaur again.

The Honda station produces about a half kilogram of hydrogen per day, or about 3.5 kilograms a week, which is stored in high-pressure tanks. By a fluke of physics, 1 kilogram of hydrogen has almost exactly the same chemical energy as a gallon of gasoline. The 2004 FCX delivers a mile-per-kilogram efficiency of 51 city and 46 highway, according to the EPA. The 2005 model, with the improved fuel cell, is rated at 62 city and 51 highway miles per kilogram.

The objective, says Knight, was to create a station capable of generating enough hydrogen to power an FCX for 10,000 miles annually, or about 200 miles per week, the average for household vehicles in the U.S.

As cool as it is, Honda’s sun pump is by no means the deliverance of a dinosaur-trodden world. For one thing, it takes a week to make a week’s worth of hydrogen fuel even in sunny California. For another, the multimillion-dollar facility is a Pentagon-style approach to making hydrogen. “It’s very expensive,” says Amory B. Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank in Colorado. “Grid electricity would be much cheaper, though that may change. Renewable hydrogen will come a lot sooner from wind power than PV.” (Honda also has a wind-hydrogen station on the Japanese island of Yakushima.)

The FCX, a homely four-seat coupe that looks for all the world like a corrective shoe, is by a fair stretch the most exotic vehicle I have ever driven, and the most costly; each copy is a $2-million science project.

Then there’s range: With a tailwind and feather-footed driver, the 2004 FCX has a maximum range of about 170 miles. The new car will go about 190 miles, still well short of the industry benchmark of 300 miles.

Yet with all their liabilities, the Honda approach shows great promise. “What it says is, these technologies work,” says John Turner, principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “The issues of cost and efficiency can be resolved going forward.”

Engineer Steven Mathison pushes the supply hose’s spring-loaded coupling over the car’s fueling nozzle and turns the valve. It’s no more complicated than filling up with Premium. Watching the digital readout, he loads a little more than 3 kilograms of hydrogen at about 4,400 psi--not quite a full tank.

I turn the key. There’s a popping in the back--the fuel tank solenoids opening. The car’s electroluminescent instrument display wakes up with the message “Fuel Cell Power.” Then, “System Check.” In the eight seconds that pass, there’s a whirring sound underfoot as the air pumps pressurize the fuel system and humidifiers. The sensors come online. Then, “Ready to Drive.” Unlike a gas-powered car, the FCX sits silently, like a golf cart, until the accelerator pedal is pushed.

I pull the floor-mounted gearshift into Drive and push the throttle. The FCX has all the gutsy exhaust note of an electric toothbrush.

Or is it the music of the spheres?

As I drive away, a wave of strange elation hits me. I’ve driven everything from jet-powered dragsters to NASCAR stockers, and petroleum has always been along as my silent, smoggy partner. Now I’m running on pure hydrogen, the converted essence of the sun itself!

I am a pagan god of personal mobility.

The week passes quickly, and not without drama. One day I drive 50 miles to Brea, and coming home I get caught in one of those epic SigAlerts on the 60 West. The FCX--like the Toyota Prius and Honda’s own hybrids--goes into hibernation when it’s not moving. Even so, the trip to Brea inhales more hydrogen than I had planned for.

By the time I set out for Torrance to refuel the next day, the LED fuel gauge registers only three bars--about a tenth of a tank. The FCX has an “energy management display” that shows the flow rate of hydrogen and the electrical assist coming from the FCX ultra-capacitor, a kind of high-tech battery that helps drive the motor at times of high load. When you accelerate hard, the “u-cap” discharges the requisite electrical power, and the display fans out in yellow LED lights. When you brake or coast, the car uses its regenerative braking system to recapture that energy and store it as electricity, and the yellow lights fan out in the opposite direction.

I spend the entire trip fixated on the energy management display, coaxing the last bit of mechanical energy from my meager reserves, teasing the yellow lights this way and that. I turn off the air conditioning and maintain a steady 60 mph--which is a death-defying rate on the 110 in the middle of the day. The FCX, a zero-emission vehicle, is permitted to use the HOV lane, but I regret moving over, as I am trapped between head-high concrete walls. This is no place to run out of fuel, and the AAA truck won’t have hydrogen in a Jerrican.

Two bars. One bar. I’m panicked. I cross under the 405, coasting wherever I can. By the time I reach Honda’s R&D; center, the FCX is running on fumes. But then, it always is.

The federal government, the European Union, the automakers, the oil companies and many others are spending billions to develop the hydrogen economy. It’s not enough. Fuel-cell systems remain impractically expensive, as well as bulky, short-range and sensitive to cold temperatures. No one has a cheap, practical, carbon-neutral means of producing renewable hydrogen in sufficient quantities to achieve some sort of hydrogen tipping point.

There are no white knights to slay the dinosaur. But with any luck we can outlast it.



How It Works: Honda’s Fuel-Cell FCX

The FCX carries 156.6 liters of compressed hydrogen (about 3.75 kilograms) in two aluminum tanks about the size of beer kegs. These tanks are virtually indestructible and, in any event, gaseous hydrogen has such a low density that it is rarely explosive in the atmosphere. The fuel cell is a concertina-shaped device that combines hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen under pressure. The byproduct of this chemical reaction is electricity, heat and pure H2O, which drizzles out the tailpipe. There are no other emissions. The fuel cell’s peak output is 78 kilowatts, or enough to power 78 hairdryers. This electricity drives the electrical motor that moves the vehicle and helps charge the ultra-capacitor, a high-tech battery that acts as a sort of electrical reservoir when vehicle load--such as acceleration--outpaces the energy produced by the fuel cell. Honda likes the ultra-capacitor because it offers quicker and higher voltage discharge and recharge. Other car companies use nickel-hydride batteries for this purpose, which are slower to charge but hold it longer.