Intelligent Energy

Hydrogen car: Femme fatale?

Hydrogen car: Femme fatale?

Posting in Energy

Honda opened the UK's first hydrogen filling station this week. The car that goes with it looks gorgeous, for a sedan. But are hydrogen vehicles barreling down the highway safe?

Honda's FCX Clarity hydrogen sedan, somewhere other than Swindon

Honda opened the UK’s first hydrogen filling station this week, not too far from where I live. Just as I was about to say “yay," I hesitated and wondered out loud: “Wait, is that safe?”

As someone once said to me, “remember the Hindenburg," the hydrogen blimp that exploded 74 years ago, killing 36 people in New Jersey.

My understanding of hydrogen is that it’s extremely volatile. It wants to explode. To give you one example from the energy industry: Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors blew up when hydrogen pulled away from water and went boom in the heat buildup.

I’m not suggesting that we go nuclear over the prospects of hydrogen cars bursting into flames when, say, they get rear-ended. And I'm not singling out Honda. Their opening in Swindon, England, which supports the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen sedan, simply marks an occasion to ask level headed questions.

As long the industry is taking considerable time to work out the economics and distribution of hydrogen, I’d like to hear more about whether these cars are safe. I’d hate to see fireproof jumpsuits added to the list of government-mandated driving requirements, along with seat belts. After all, the fledgling blimp resurgence is using helium, not hydrogen.

I’ve quickly trawled the Internet and noticed that some hydrogen supporters are fed up with Hindenburg comparisons. They claim that hydrogen cars are as safe as gasoline vehicles (your choice as to whether that’s reassuring). Birmingham University professor and hydrogen expert Kevin Kendall reiterates that, noting in a BBC video, “Like petrol, you’ve got to be careful.” (You probably know that “petrol” is Brit speak for gasoline, but I translate nonetheless).

In the spirit of blogging, I ask: Is that gorgeous car pictured above (good looking for a sedan, anyway) a femme fatale beckoning you into a fireball? Or is it a symbol of a fossil fuel free automobile future where, by the way, refueling will take minutes rather than the hours of electric battery charging? None of the above? Or, as is usually the case, does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Your comments, please.

Photo: Paul Moak Honda/Flickr

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure