There's something inspirational about driving nearly 120 miles and producing no noxious emissions.
Carbon monoxide? Zero.
Nitrous oxide? Nada.
Carbon dioxide? Nyet.
Particulates? Mais non, cher.
Just a trickle of lukewarm water from the tailpipe.
The hydrogen fuel cell-powered Honda FCX, a four-door hatchback, boasts the first fuel cell any automaker has developed that works in subzero temperatures.
Every automaker that can afford to is working to perfect the hydrogen fuel cell. Total investment in the research probably amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
That's a huge commitment, but this could be the beginning of the next industrial revolution -- virtually limitless fuel with no harmful emissions. The prospect makes engineers giddy, and they are all convinced that this is the silver bullet that could once and for all take the auto industry out of the environmental debate -- if some important hurdles are overcome.
The FCX performed brilliantly, which is to say: just like a conventional car. Turn the key, it starts. Depress the accelerator and it goes.
The electric motor produces 107 horsepower and a muscular 201 pound-feet of torque. That's more torque than a sporty V6-powered Volkswagen Golf GTi, giving the FCX enough oomph that I inadvertently squealed its all-season Yokohama tires several times.
The FCX's top speed is 93 mph, and it more than held its own on highways and surface streets in and around Detroit. At 164 inches long and weighing 3,713 pounds, the FCX is about 13 inches shorter and nearly 1,300 pounds heavier than a Honda Civic coupe.
Driving the FCX to the grocery store or to meet friends for coffee was no different from driving any subcompact hatchback, except it had less environmental impact than throwing away the wrapper from a candy bar.
As exalting as driving the FCX was, the car also comes equipped with an overwhelming irony: The car might run on the most plentiful element in the universe, but I had an eye glued to the fuel gauge all weekend because I was afraid I'd run out.
With its twin tanks full of hydrogen, the FCX has a maximum cruising range of 190 miles. That's less than two-thirds the range automakers figure a car needs to be practical.
Automakers have made huge advances in how their fuel cells work, but they're still stumped about how to store enough hydrogen on board. The Honda's two fuel tanks held hydrogen at 5,000 pounds per square inch and the consensus among automakers is that you need 10,000 psi for a workable cruising range. Building tanks to meet that standard and withstand automotive crashes is still prohibitively expensive.
And then the nearest hydrogen filling station was about 2,000 miles away.
DTE Energy has a facility in Southfield, Mich., that creates hydrogen to generate electricity and refuel vehicles, but it's not ready for drive-up customers yet.
The FCX ran smoothly and dependably. It ran a systems check each time I started it. If I'd run the car within the last two or three hours, I received a "ready to drive" message on the dashboard after 10 seconds or less -- about as much time as it takes to put my cappuccino in the cup holder and fasten my seatbelt.
After sitting out one sub-20 degree night, the check lasted about 37 seconds. The process took about 18 seconds after I let the car sit in subfreezing temperatures for more than 24 hours, and the heater provided warm air less than a minute after startup.
From hood to hatch, the drive system consists of an 80-watt (107 horsepower) electric motor, a fuel cell under the passenger compartment floor, two hydrogen tanks under the rear seat and a capacitor to store electricity that sits behind the rear seatback.
In addition to the fuel cell, the FCX also produces electricity with regenerative braking. The capacitor stores electricity from both the fuel cell and the brakes.
The fuel cell generates electricity whenever the FCX is running, and the capacitor steps in when you accelerate hard or drive at high speed.
The FCX runs quietly, and what little noise it makes is more similar to an electric fan than a conventional engine. It's never as nearly silent as a hybrid-electric running in pure electric mode, however.
The FCX's hydrogen gauge predicted a cruising range of about 126 miles when I picked it up. I drove it nearly to the last atom and covered 117.2 miles.
Late on a particularly cold evening, a warning lamp appeared and a dashboard message flashed "power reduced."
That had no obvious effect on the FCX's operation, though.
How Honda FCX works
Q: How does a fuel cell work?
A: Basically, it introduces hydrogen atoms to oxygen atoms and encourages them to hook up. That kicks some electrons loose, and they can be used to power anything from a cell phone to a car. The by-products are heat and water.
Q: Isn't hydrogen explosive?
A: Yes, but so is gasoline. The key is to store it in a rugged container that will survive collisions and to keep sparks and static electricity away from it.
Q: What about the Hindenburg airship?
A: Having it full of hydrogen didn't help, but most of the damage came from the fact that the Zeppelin's skin was covered with a highly flammable coating.
Q: Where does hydrogen come from?
A: It's the most common element in the universe, but most commercially available hydrogen is made by big oil companies, who get it from petroleum.
Q: And that's good for the environment?
A: Not particularly. It's easier to control the emissions from a big industrial refinery than from millions of cars, but the preferred long-term solution is probably using electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen.
Producing enough hydrogen to power lots of cars and trucks will require much more electrical generating capacity. Most experts expect this to come from a combination of renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower and a new generation of nuclear and coal plants.
Q: Is hydrogen more expensive than gasoline?
A: It is now, but automakers expect the cost to fall before fuel cells go into widespread use.
Q: How long does it take to refuel?
A: It's too early to say, since scientists and engineers are still trying to figure out the best way to store hydrogen in a car. However, the car companies say the technology won't be ready for prime time until refueling time is the same or less than with gasoline.
Q: Where will we refuel the cars?
A: Probably at filling stations set up to handle hydrogen.
Q: How often do I have to plug a fuel cell car in?
A: Never. It produces its own electricity on board.
Q: If I left my Honda FCX sitting at the airport for two weeks, would its capacitor still have any electricity when I needed it?
A: Honda says its capacitor retains its charge "for many weeks."
Q: Wasn't it a fuel cell that wrecked Apollo 13's flight to the moon?
A: Not exactly. The tank holding liquid oxygen for a fuel cell exploded because NASA increased the voltage to some electrical components and didn't upgrade the rest of the system to deal with the higher power and greater heat.
Q: Where will fuel cell cars store their hydrogen?
A: Nobody's sure yet. There are two main competing technologies:
Keep it compressed in tanks as in the FCX . This will require new materials that are very tough and much less expensive than anything available today.
Solid-state storage, which could be less expensive and hold more hydrogen. The hydrogen is chemically attached to another material. DaimlerChrysler does this by combining hydrogen with Borax. Other researchers are experimenting with combining the hydrogen with metals. The big hurdle is storing enough hydrogen this way to give the car a 300-mile cruising range.