Is Fuel Cell the End to gasoline?(AUTO WEEKEND)

Article excerpt


DaimlerChrysler's NECAR 5 just drove across the United States. The first fuel cell-powered automobile in history to have attempted the trip from San Francisco to Washington gently glided to a stop below the U.S. Capitol Tuesday before a host of reporters and cameramen. There was no engine noise and no exhaust, just a whirring sound from somewhere under the car. NECAR 5, at that moment, went into the history books.

Ninety-nine years ago, May 23, 1903, Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and Sewallk K. Crocker drove a 1903 Winton touring car nicknamed "Vermont" on the first successful transcontinental drive from San Francisco to the East. Sixty-three days, 12 hours and 30 minutes later they arrived in New York City.

On the same day in 1903 two workers at the Packard Co. drove a Model F nicknamed "The Old Pacific" from the West Coast to the East in an effort to prove the "viability" of the gasoline-powered automobile. Their trip didn't go into the record books, however, as their trip was overshadowed by the Winton's success. It took both teams over two months to make the historic trip over unpaved, largely unmarked, roads and equally uncertain fuel supplies.

No matter who did it first, these automotive pioneers effectively proved that automobiles could and would - be far more efficient and reliable than horse-drawn wagons. The automobile offered more comfort, relatively instant access (it took quite a while to hitch a team of horses) and less expense to operate. Believe it or not, the automobile was a "solution" to the urban pollution caused by horses that left the streets a mess.

In 1903 blacksmiths built the first cars. Ph.D. engineers and computer scientists build them now, but over the past 10 decades the automobile has come to dominate - dictate, if you will - the way society moves.

For better or worse it created the suburbs, the travel industry, drive-in theaters, interstate highways, shopping malls and, unfortunately, air pollution. The internal combustion engine still rules the roads and has been engineered to run cleaner and cleaner over the past 20 years, but its "salad days" are drawing to a slow, ever-so-slow close.

The propulsion system that will replace them is still in question, but a leading candidate is the fuel cell. This (relatively) simple system is the reverse of electrolysis, combining elemental hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity (and water) that, in turn, can run an electric motor.

That motor can propel a car quite well. It has only one moving part and produces massive torque (that's what accelerates a vehicle) for its size and weight. To move a passenger car, a 50 to 75 kilowatt fuel-cell plant must be used. As long as it is fed hydrogen it will produce the necessary electricity. While a pressurized bottle of hydrogen gas is the simplest "fuel tank," it has its problems, primarily involving availability and cost. Enter NECAR 5, fueled by methanol.

Over the years DaimlerChrysler has worked with fuel cells and has produced a series of cars powered by the systems. Previous NECAR (New Electric CAR) models used hydrogen tanks, but the company wanted to create a car that could be fueled from an existing infrastructure on its way across the country. NECAR 5 uses an on-board reformer to extract hydrogen from liquid methanol.

Known as "wood alcohol," methanol is a simple hydrogen-rich molecule. While most commercial methanol is produced from natural gas, it can be produced from a variety of renewable resources such as landfill methane gas, wood waste and biomass crops. …