Honda’s Hydrogen Progress

CASE VP Jay Joseph outlines dramatic cost reductions in fuel-cell systems, the move into stationary power, and new models for mobile and residential energy.

The new stationary power station repurposes fuel cell stacks from Honda’s Clarity FCV. (Honda)

Is the long-promised “hydrogen economy” still 15 years away, as it reportedly has been for… more than 15 years? Or is it just around the corner? SAE Media traveled to Honda’s U.S. campus in Torrance, California, to see the company’s latest progress. This was the introduction of Honda’s zero-emission stationary fuel-cell power station, which now is in service as a backup power source for the company’s data center.

Honda CASE VP Jay Joseph unveils the new stationary hydrogen fuel cell power station at the company’s Torrance, California, campus. (Dinkel)

Honda’s FCX was the the world’s first production fuel-cell vehicle when it debuted in 2002. Since then the company’s hydrogen developments have continued. Honda began collaborating on fuel-cell systems in 2013 and the two OEMs share a fuel-cell manufacturing joint venture. The Torrance event also presented the opportunity to speak with Jay Joseph, Honda’s VP of Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Electrified (CASE) technologies. Our interview began with a focus on the new fuel-cell power station, which repurposes fuel-cell stacks from Honda Clarity FCVs and has an approximate generating capacity of 500 kW. Highlights of our conversation follow.

SAE: Do the stacks eventually wear out, like batteries?

Part of what is going on inside the stack is a catalyst reaction. There are seals that operate under pressure so there is a wear component over time.

Can the stacks be recycled?

Yes. It’s expensive, but there are precious metals and other materials used in the manufacturing of a fuel-cell stack and in theory all of that material could be recovered. In practice, most of it can be recovered now and we are working on pathways to make them 100% recyclable. Stationary fuel-cell power is a secondary use for a good fuel cell, so if a vehicle runs the course of its lease and there is some reason the vehicle wouldn’t continue in service, absolutely, we can take a good fuel cell stack and put it into a stationary use. We actually did the hard part first.

How so?

Mobile use is much more complex than stationary use because you have to make the cooling and everything else compact. And the management system has to be more compact so that it can fit into a mobile application like a car. Working on a stationary system is much easier because all the inputs can be controlled. We actually did the hard part first. So, the Clarity fuel cells are a very good system to apply in a stationary setup.

Could this technology be downsized for home use? And not just for backup, but for primary power?
Fuel cell vehicle refueling station installed earlier at Honda’s Torrance facility. (Honda)

Yes, it could. For a typical U.S. home, 500 kW is probably too much, even for peak energy demands, and you would probably have a battery for offsetting peak usage. But theoretically you could. This is a pretty big system for a home. I think it would make more sense for a neighborhood or a community. Theoretically it’s possible, but there is more work to be done to get more energy out of a system like that to supply several homes. The home would have to be relatively efficient to begin with.

Even with a Tesla Battery Wall you can’t power a whole house for an extended period.

Yes. You’re not necessarily home during the day when you’ve got sunshine. And then you’re still dependent upon good weather and other factors. And when you’re home at night, there is no solar, so you’re not producing any energy. So, let’s say that 40 to 50 years from now, it probably would not be one solution but multiple overlapping solutions that would provide energy in an area to a group of homes.

Clean energy created in a neighborhood because you are using the excess renewable energy from solar or wind or other sources; hydro if you are living near the Columbia River. It depends upon what is available and what makes sense in that area. But hydrogen can act as a battery because you can produce it with low-value electricity and then you’ve got it whenever you need it. It can be used like an energy store.

What does a system like that [the Honda installation] cost?

We’re not talking cost.

Is it less expensive than battery backup from solar panels, for a house for instance?

We can’t compare it to that yet. But what I can give you is some dimensionless comparisons just for a sense of scale. Just for a sense of direction, our next generation fuel cell system, the one in the Honda CR-V we will sell about a year from now [early 2024] will cost about two-thirds less and be twice as reliable as the fuel cells in this system from the Clarity.

The generation we bring to market at the end of this decade will be half-again that cost and twice as reliable again. So, we’re improving the performance and reducing cost dramatically.

If I had a Ford Lightning, I could plug it into my house in times of emergency. Could I plug a Clarity into my house?

We’re a little early to talk about it, but probably not a whole house yet. But theoretically, yes. We’ll share more detail about how we are approaching that as we get closer to the launch of the CR-V plug-in FCEV early in 2024. There are exciting new features coming that will contribute to people’s lives in new ways. We have to wait until closer to next year to talk about that.

The hydrogen fuel cell station is serving as a backup power source for Honda’s data center. (Dinkel)
Are you planning on producing hydrogen using electrolysis?

No. What we are trying to do is create an ecosystem with partners. We don’t want to, short term, enter the hydrogen-production business. We want to create demand that makes it an attractive investment for others to do. We have invested in First Element Fuels as a hydrogen distributor now. We haven’t tackled the hydrogen-production challenge yet – it needs to be addressed. We’re focused more on the solutions and working with partners who will help us deliver ‘green’ H2 ideally, but we are not creating the technology for production yet.

Perhaps hydrogen is a more realistic solution than batteries.

Batteries have come a long way. Charging will improve as we get to 350-volt systems. We will increase the throughput of the charging systems and improve the battery technology so that it can receive energy faster. It’s getting better – but it’s still not good enough. There are some very promising technologies. We’re working on solid-state batteries that are highly recyclable, with faster charging times and better energy density, but that’s still down the road.

If you’ve got a “gas” station with cars expecting to fill up with “electricity” in five minutes, you are going to need a generation plant somewhere close that’s going to be providing all the electricity those cars will require.

This is a multiple-variable equation, and it’s not a simple equation. One, battery electric cars will all have 80 kWh or larger batteries. Let’s say 80- to 120-kWh batteries. Where I’m headed with this: We will have high-range vehicles with high-capacity batteries, yet our driving behavior will not change dramatically. Most trips will be less than 25 miles, which means we can look at the batteries in vehicles as an energy resource we can manage throughout the day. Once we have bi-directional charging, which is only a couple of years away, we’re almost there. That’s on the foreseeable horizon.

Once we can use energy that goes in and out of those vehicles frequently, we’ve got a situation where cars are not drawing demand at the worst times and are contributing energy to the grid system at the best times. Our relationship with energy for the last 100 years has been: I put gas in a big hole in the side of the car that gets pumped through a pipe to my propulsion unit that carries me and the other occupants in the car and whatever cargo I have. That gas has one energy value: It has the value of the energy when I pumped it into my tank and only that value.

Electricity is very different. We have to change our relationship with energy for mobility dramatically, because our electricity value fluctuates throughout the day. We can arbitrage that on behalf of our customers if we’re managing that energy and if they trust us a little bit. We can now put money in their pocket by saying, hey, I want you to charge overnight when you’re taking excess grid energy. And I want you to charge during the day when the sun’s shining and nobody’s using electricity. Top off your battery. You tell me what your comfort level is. I’m going to leave you margin and I never want to take away from your mobility.

You want to be able to go to lunch on a whim or you want to make sure you can pick up your kid from soccer practice. You figure out what margins you need and you let us manage the rest of that energy remotely from somewhere else, and we’re going to put money in your pocket every day. And we’re also going to reduce peak demand, because we’re going to supply energy to the grid when it’s needed. And we’ll use that low-demand energy to top off those batteries. Just imagine how different our relationship with energy for mobility is in that circumstance.

From our perspective we have, as an industry, said to our customers for 120 years, “Thank you for buying a car. Now you go pick your energy source.”

We don’t have to do that now.

Now we can have a relationship with our customers where we help them manage their energy needs throughout the lifetime of that vehicle. We can put money in their pocket. We can offset the cost of ownership of the vehicle. There are so many things we can contribute to our customers’ lives if we earn their trust.