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April 22, 2011 9:46 AM

Honda hopes to turn homes into hydrogen-refueling stations


Systems such as this solar hydrogen prototype at a Honda facility are ultimately intended as a home refueling appliance for cars such as the Honda FCX Clarity. (Honda)


The Honda FCX Clarity doesn't have pistons or a camshaft, but it does have a compact lithium-ion battery as a supplemental power source to the fuel cell. The battery is small enough to fit underneath the rear seat. (Honda)

Imagine a world where all it took to power a car was sunshine and tap water. That isn't a pipe dream but, rather, the reality of emerging technology that someday could turn your house into a personal, zero-emission gas station.

It's called a residential hydrogen refueler, and only one exists. Tucked away on the Torrance, Calif., campus of American Honda Motor Co., the sleek system is designed to power Honda's limited-production FCX Clarity sedan and other hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

The system uses solar panels to power a machine the size of a small refrigerator that sips water and breaks it apart into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen is then pumped directly into the car, which uses the gas to generate electricity for the car's electric motor. No fossil fuels, no pollution, no additional strain on the power grid -- and all done at home.

Welcome to the future.

How far into the future? About four years, according to statements from automakers and fuel providers including Shell. Honda, General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes and other manufacturers have indicated that they likely will begin selling hydrogen-powered production cars to consumers in 2015.

Along with the Clarity, a few other hydrogen fuel-cell cars exist, all available only for lease. Most of the lessees are in "station clusters," specific geographic areas such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., that have hydrogen-fueling stations. It's the scarcity of these hydrogen stations that's seen as one of the biggest barriers to mass adoption of fuel-cell cars.

By contrast, electric cars that can plug into a home power outlet are getting most of the attention these days. But the enthusiasm of hydrogen-car drivers, coupled with the promise of hydrogen stations at home, indicate these fuel-cell vehicles could also be players.

"They're going to have to break into my garage if they think they're getting this car back," says Clarity driver Jack Cusick, 41. The assistant principal of Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, Calif., was talking about the burgundy-colored Honda he has been leasing and will need to return in January.

Cusick is one of 20 participants in the Clarity program, which began in July 2008.

"When you hear about field-testing a car, you expect to drive something that isn't necessarily duct tape and cardboard, but you don't expect it to be a fancy car," says Cusick. "This is a luxury automobile."

Honda won't reveal a price for an individual vehicle, but when these cars are available for sale, their cost will be comparable with luxury sedans.

For now, Cusick's lease is steep: $600 a month. Still, he finds the price reasonable because it includes regular maintenance, comprehensive and collision insurance, and the cost of hydrogen.

Sure, Cusick has heard quips about the Hindenburg and fielded inquiries about whether the car is likely to explode -- jokes he counters with questions about the Exxon Valdez.

"It's not like their cars run on Pepsi or something," says Cusick, who lives in Irvine and refuels at the hydrogen station at the University of California, Irvine. "I'm driving a car that spits out nothing but water."