Honda Takes Hydrogen Out for a Spin

With the world just starting to use more oil than it likely can produce over time, it's a decided positive to have an automobile company contemplating production of a hydrogen car, rather than cranking out giant eight-cylinder SUVs as rapidly as suburban families can drive them off dealers' lots. On that basis, I applaud Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , which will introduce a state-of-the-art hydrogen fuel-cell car in California next year.

It appears that the big Japanese auto company will begin with the zero-emissions FCX Clarity, which will be leased to a few customers on a limited basis at a cost of about $600 a month. The fuel-cell car will emit only water. Honda remains silent on the specific technology involved, as well as on its own approaches to dealing with the numerous technical obstacles facing manufacturers of hydrogen engines.

According to a Scientific American article on hydrogen-engine technology, Ford (NYSE: F  ) and BMW also plan to offer cars powered by hydrogen engines in the not-too-distant future. The companies are, however, facing numerous technological impediments to their efforts.

These include the relative space necessary to house the hydrogen fuel, the (often high-pressure) storage necessary for hydrogen gas in the automobile, the speed at which hydrogen refills can be added to the engine, the distance a hydrogen fill-up will permit the driver to travel, and the temperature at which the hydrogen is both stored and used in the engine. Each of these areas is presenting a challenge that scientists throughout the world are working diligently to overcome.

But with cars and trucks in the U.S. accounting for about two-thirds of the more than 20 million barrels of oil our nation consumes each day, efforts to conquer hydrogen's challenges are both welcome and necessary. Those efforts are occurring in laboratories from Japan to Germany. Collectively, they demonstrate tremendous promise.

Honda hasn't disclosed how many vehicles will be made available through its initial lease program. It also hasn't discussed the cost of each automobile. But given our global energy supply demand balance, along with the mounting concerns about the role of hydrocarbon emissions in global warming, my hat goes off to the companies that are moving toward the production of alternatively fueled, clean-burning engines. The results should include all sorts of lifestyle, national security, and investment benefits for the Foolish world.

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