Honda’s aging hydrogen fuel cells are given new life in the data center

by Ana Lopez

Honda bail on the Clarity – the only hydrogen-powered car in the US – but the automaker hasn’t stopped using fuel cells.

That’s the message Honda sent today with a quirky announcement: It’s putting some old Clarity fuel cells back to work and combining them into a backup power system for its data center just south of Los Angeles.

This is just a “proof of concept,” Honda told businessupdates.org, but the goal is to commercialize the technology and sees potential applications beyond helping data centers keep the lights on.

The fuel cell systems used in Honda’s backup power demonstration once had leased Clarities (via an electrochemical reaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity). Honda retired these used fuel cells from transportation, but they apparently still work well enough to power its server farm in the event of a power outage. Previously, Honda relied on diesel for factory backup power. (Honda said it uses this particular data center to “securely access its own data” because “car design is data intensive”.)

It’s nice to hear that Honda has found a use for its old fuel cells, but crucially, this demonstration isn’t as environmentally friendly as it could be. The company told businessupdates.org that it is not exclusively using green hydrogen in the pilot, meaning at least some of it was generated through fossil fuels.

Here’s the problem with using hydrogen to generate electricity: fuel cells do that while only spewing out water and heat as exhaust gases, but they’re still indirectly polluting if that hydrogen comes from dirty sources (as most hydrogen fuel does). Correcting this would require much more green hydrogen production, on top of the infrastructure needed to deliver the hydrogen. This is why some car manufacturers don’t believe in the future of hydrogen cars; they claim it’s just too much work to go that route.

But! Honda still believes in hydrogen cars. In fact, this demonstration is also a kind of advertisement for Honda’s next-generation fuel cells, which the company has been developing with General Motors.

As Honda says, next-generation fuel cell systems will power its upcoming hydrogen-powered vehicle, which is “based on the Honda CR-V” and is due for release in 2024.

Honda also plans to use these new fuel cell systems for backup power as it scales up the technology. That means this effort won’t be as circular, if at all, when commercialized. But on the upside, Honda said it plans to use green hydrogen exclusively when it brings the backup power units to market.

In addition to data centers, Honda added it is considering other applications, including “peak shaving.” This means Honda believes industrial customers can use its generators at peak times, when electricity is most expensive and grids are under stress.

Honda said it wants to develop its proof of concept into a “new business model”. Nevertheless, the pilot is also a useful way for the company to promote its new fuel cells. As battery electric cars penetrate the US market, Honda has an interest in keeping hydrogen in the headlines.

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