Honda ready to hit the gas

Domestic gas as a car fuel? It's finding favour in the United States, Liz Turner reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Everyone agrees that alternative fuels are a good thing, but one of the major problems is where to fill up. Who will invest enormous sums in an infrastructure when it might turn out to be supporting the Betamax of fuels?

Everyone agrees that alternative fuels are a good thing, but one of the major problems is where to fill up. Who will invest enormous sums in an infrastructure when it might turn out to be supporting the Betamax of fuels?

One solution is to fill up using something already delivered to your home. The usual suggestion is electricity, but electric cars are a long way off. Instead, Honda is looking at natural gas. The internal combustion engine can run happily on gas, so why not fill your car with the same stuff that fries your chips? More gas-powered vehicles are on offer, using either liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or compressed natural gas (CNG). Most are bi-fuel and switch from injectors delivering petrol to a second set delivering gas. Difference in performance is minimal, and running costs and emissions are slashed.

CNG has proved less popular than LPG because you need more of it to travel the same distance, and that means sacrificing storage space for a large tank. But it is very clean, emitting up to 97 per cent less carbon dioxide than petrol, between 35 and 60 per cent fewer oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and fewer toxic and carcinogenic pollutants.

Honda is working with Fuel-Maker, in Toronto, to produce Phill, a "home refuelling appliance" that can be mounted on your garage wall. It connects to your domestic gas pipeline and compresses the gas to make CNG. It fills your car overnight to give it a 200-mile range.

From spring this year, Phill and the entirely CNG-powered Honda Civic GX will go on sale in California, where 80 per cent of homes have gas. The GX is in its seventh year of (limited) sales in the US, and it was declared the cleanest internal-combustion-engine-powered vehicle the US Environmental Protection Agency had tested. Without Phill, however, it has been marketed only to fleets.

One major advantage for private customers will be that the GX is so clean that it can join electric vehicles in the freeway car-pool lane. There are disadvantages, of course. GX buyers will lose 30 per cent of their load space to the fuel tank. There are going to be days, too, when a 200-mile range is not enough. There are now 1,300 refuelling stations offering CNG in 46 states, though, about 120 of them in California.

At home, Phill needs about eight hours to fill the tank. Fuel stations have larger compressors and can fast-fill the car in two or three minutes. Honda reckons the GX can match a petrol-electric hybrid for economy, being 25 per cent more efficient than a petrol Civic.

Gas is attractive to US buyers not just because it is clean, but because it is domestically produced and reduces reliance on Middle East oil. China is a huge potential market for gas-powered cars: it imports about half its oil, but is investigating potentially huge gas fields. And the largest producer of gas, Russia, is just over the border. Honda's ambitions are conservative for now. The Phill unit will cost $2,000 (£1,050), but the GX commands a premium of $4,000 over an equivalent Civic (the range starts at $13,160), so the company hopes to sell only about 500 in the first year.

It will need to explore the market, and make sure customers don't hit difficulties with planning permission for their private filling station. Honda, which has had a 20 per cent stake in FuelMaker since 2000, is also helping the company to gear up for mass production. Then it is hoped that GX and Phill will be offered nationally in the next few years.

Honda is working on fuel cells. These use hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity to power the car. It is working with a company called Plug Power on a home-energy station to take natural gas from a home supply and use it to make hydrogen.Americans must decide what to call their fuels: "filling up with gas" might be a tad confusing but it makes a welcome change from all those petrol-thirsty SUVs.

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