The Petersen Automotive Museum Showcases the History of Fuel-Cell Power

Events, Featured  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

LOS ANGELES—The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is one of the best of its kind in the country, and features some truly unusual—and early—green vehicles, such as a 1917 Woods Dual Power Coupe. It was a hybrid car (with a four-cylinder gas engine and central electric motor) more than 50 years before its time.

Petersen’s current Alternative Power exhibit features a 1915 Detroit Electric, a 1939 Fiat natural gas burner, a 1914 Galt hybrid (built in Canada) and also fuel-cell cars—including both the Honda Clarity and the Toyota Mirai. According to Petersen Curator Leslie Kendall, “We tried to pick the most common/popular sources of alternative energy being tested in cars today, and that includes the hydrogen fuel-cell. We then found the earliest example of a car using that source of alternative energy, and modern versions as well.”

It’s appropriate that this exhibit is in Los Angeles, because the city has the most robust hydrogen network in the country, and is at the epicenter of fuel-cell vehicle deployment. The long history of the hydrogen car is represented in the exhibit by two vehicles, including the General Motors Electrovan and the Honda FCX.

GM Electrovan

GM’s Electrovan was the world’s first fuel-cell vehicle. (Petersen Automotive Museum photo)

GM’s vehicle is a converted GMC Handivan from 1966. Although the fuel cell was invented in the 19th century, the Electrovan represented the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell car, GM says.

The Electrovan amply illustrates how far fuel-cell development has come. The 32-kilowatt powerplant consisted of 32 thin-electrode fuel cell modules connected in series, and it was mounted under the floor—connected by 550 feet of plastic piping. The motor and control system—which now can be tucked out of sight—took up most of the space behind the driver and passenger seats.

The GM fuel-cell van weighed in at 7,100 pounds, and carried 45 gallons of potassium hydroxide electrolyte (itself weighing 550 pounds). Top speed was a mere 70 mph, and zero to 60 took 30 seconds. The Electrovan was actually never road-registered; it was only used on General Motors property.

After a round of sessions with journalists, the Electrovan program hit a dead end. “It was cost-prohibitive,” GM says. “The platinum used in the fuel cell was enough to buy a whole fleet of vans, and there was absolutely no supporting hydrogen infrastructure in place at that time.”

Honda FCX

The Honda FCX represents a state-of-the-art fuel-cell car circa 1999. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also in the exhibit is a Honda FCX fuel-cell car, which represented the state of the art for hydrogen vehicles in 1999. Back then, Honda showed the V1, which used a Ballard Power Systems fuel cell and used a hydrogen occlusion alloy for fuel storage. The V2 used Honda’s own methanol-fueled stack, and added on a reformer for extracting hydrogen from the liquid fuel.

The FCX (using the Honda EV Plus body) represented an advance in fuel-cell technology, because packaging and reliability had improved dramatically. A small number of FCX cars (perhaps totaling 20) were lent to journalists, including this writer.

The FCX cars were works in progress, leading to commercial fuel-cell cars such as the Mirai and Clarity. Today’s engineers have dramatically reduced the amount of platinum needed for fuel-cell catalysts, an embryonic refueling network is in place, and pricing is becoming competitive with battery-electric cars.

As the museum points out, “Contemporary alternative-power vehicles are designed to use fuels more efficiently than typical gasoline-powered cars, reducing or eliminating emissions. These vehicles contain state-of-the-art, often experimental, technology that may form the blueprint for future automobiles.”

The museum is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.Petersen.org.

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