Fuel Cell-Vision Becomes Reality. (Wheels Technology)

By Williams, Stephen | African Business, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Fuel Cell-Vision Becomes Reality. (Wheels Technology)

Williams, Stephen, African Business

When it comes to the future of the automobile, Mercedes-Benz has always been the leader. That proud heritage continues with the company's new developments in fuel cell technology for environmentally friendly transport systems.

Over the last 50 years, revolutionary examples of technical innovations from Mercedes-Benz have become virtually standard components for modern automobiles - and one area the company is currently devoting considerable resources to developing is the introduction of the fuel cell drive systems to the specific needs of the automobile.

The fuel cell drive still requires some time before it can match up to the internal combustion engine, but it's commonly accepted that the only way to secure the future of the world's mobility is the successful development of alternative fuels, moving away from finite fossil fuel resources.

Fuel cell technology is currently regarded as the alternative drive system offering the best prospects for the future. Based on forward-looking technology, this system saves resources as it functions by using alternative or regenerative fuels.

DaimlerChrysler, Mercedes Benz's parent company, have spent over $12bn on environmental protection programmes over the last decade, securing top ratings in the latest automotive industry report, Driving Sustainability, co-published by consultants SustainAbility and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is just one strand of the company's research into means to minimise the environmental impact of the automobile - from its manufacture, throughout its operational life to its eventual disposal.

Of course, DaimlerChrysler are not alone in developing alternative fuel technologies. Many including BMW, Toyota, Honda, Ford and General Motors are also researching fuel cell power, as well as alternative fuels such as biomass derived methanol and synthetic fuels. Hybrid technology is also gaining a foothold - that is cars which are essentially conventionally powered but which generate and store electricity for a second electric motor that operates in stop-go city traffic.

Although DaimlerChrysler plan to market a hybrid Dodge Ram pick-up in the US, specifically for use as mobile electric generators, it seems that the company have serious doubts over the advantages of the hybrid system. The emphasis of their research seems to be focused, in the short term, on improving the efficiency of both petrol and diesel engines themselves - and in the longer term, the development of the hydrogen fuel cell.


Automobiles whose fuel cells use hydrogen directly as an energy source operate absolutely emission-free and are especially efficient. Unlike petroleum, hydrogen exists in virtually unlimited quantities, though in chemically bound forms. It can be recovered from water, natural gas or by-products of the chemical industry. What's more, fuel cell technology is relatively simple.

The simplest method of producing hydrogen is through the electrolysis of water, whereby water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by applying an electric current. Electrolysis requires electric power, but in the long term that could be obtained from hydroelectric sources, wind power or solar energy. In that case, the energy balance - from the generation of hydrogen to its use in the vehicle - would be virtually emission-free.


Yet, as with any new technology, there are constraints. The initial cost of fuel cell vehicles will be a major problem in introducing this type of vehicle to Africa in the foreseeable future.

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