In the past when we saw a small auto with a large group of people around it, the expected news was going to be that a new Guiness record was being set for how many bodies were stuffed into the car. This month’s cover again has a small auto with many people, but alas, they did not all pile in for such a record. Instead, they were part of the team which became the first to drive a fuel cell-powered car across the U.S. Stuffing people in autos is a curiosity, but the feat of this team and all the thousands of others who provided design, construction, maintenance and guidance for the DaimlerChrysler’s cross country NECAR 5 established a milestone which opens the door for yet other records for fuel cell autos. (Cover photo is courtesy of DaimlerChrysler.)
In the case of major technologies, certain records must be established. The first auto, a Winton Touring Car was driven cross country in 1903. Lindberg first flew the Atlantic in 1927; Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, and Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969.
Now the story of the fuel cell auto is being written. Discovered by Sir William Groves in 1839, the technology lay nearly dormant until the 1950s when space engineers found the combination of electric power generation and drinking water from fuel cells, the ‘right stuff’ for astronauts in the Apollo program. Still a curiosity, the fuel cell began to take root as a power generator for autos and stationary devices in the 1990’s to address both the problems of growing worldwide pollution and to utilize alternative fuels which would reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
The progress of fuel cell development for all applications has not been easy. The combination of a highly developed technology of the internal combustion engine and the availability of low cost oil has set the bar for fuel cell cost and performance impossibly high. Today, the ballpark of cost difference favors the IC engine by a factor of 10, while infrastructures for friendly fuels such as renewably generated methanol or photovoltaically produced hydrogen are little more than hopes and dreams of future generations.
But, the handwriting is on the wall. Global warming caused by the ever increasing world population’s demand for more energy is admitted by even the most pessimistic. Air pollution contributing to health problems can be easily correlated, and shudders ripple through world financial markets with each new terrorist bombing paid for from the profits of oil production. Other problems include the projections for dwindling world petroleum and natural gas supply within this century, plus the future for coal, which a few decades ago was estimated as being available for 600 years, but now has the number cut in half. This little planet whirling through space is approaching the day when energy from the sun will be the prime mover of humanity, unless fusion is harnessed.
The fuel cell powered auto is being pursued as the heir apparent in the future of transportation and electricity production in the U.S. Its success is not guaranteed by any government program; because in taking a lesson from California’s mandated electric car program of the 1990’s, governments cannot mandate technology any more than they can mandate morality.
The fuel cell is not a guaranteed answer to energy and pollution problems, but it has strong possibilities for becoming one of the facets of that future scenario. To that end, the Federal government’s program, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) with the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) on January 9, 2002 was redirected as the FreeedomCAR program which will focus on affordable fuel cell powered vehicles, promote the development of hydrogen as a primary fuel and reduce our reliance on imported oil.
In FreedomCAR the fuel cell has ‘fair haired child’ status. With a total 2003 budget allocation of $150.3 million, forty percent is targeted for fuel cell research. The key is that the fuel cell is still in the realm of research. Technical, economic and infrastructure considerations need to be refined to make fuel cells successful.
The successful first cross country trip by a fuel cell car showed that technology has moved performance and reliability to the point where a fuel cell vehicle driving on ordinary roads over a range of conditions, including mountains and cities, is now achievable.
This NECAR5 not only establlished the record as the first fuel cell powered auto to cross the U.S., but it also broke the record for the time of a first crossing, shrinking the 19 day time of the Winton auto to 16 days. Covering 3,263 miles at an average speed of 38.4 miles per hour, the team of 16 people led by Wolfgang Weiss, included drivers Dr.H. Nelson Jackson and Newall K. Crocker. Methanol fuel for the vehicle was provided at nominal 300 mile refueling intervals by Methanex. This methanol was reformed on board the vehicle to provide the hydrogen needed for the fuel cell. While the mileage was about 40 mpg, an amount below that expected for a gas burning Mercedes-Benz A Class vehicle on which the NECAR 5 is based, the methanol fuel reforming and low temperature ‘burning’ are much more environmentally friendly.
Under the hood, the ‘engine’ is a proton exchange membrane (PEM) type of fuel cell with an integral reformer to extract hydrogen from the methanol. It was built by Ballard Power Systems Inc, the partner to both DaimlerChrysler and Ford for automotive fuel cells. It produces 100 horsepower or 75 kW which will propel the vehicle at top speeds of up to 90 mph.
During the record trip, the vehicle only required maintenance for a moisture caused electrical short and replacement of two belts, four fuel filters and one plastic bottle which contained cooling water.
The cross country feat has been accomplished but allows no time for resting on laurels. The fuel cell auto has many more milestones to accomplish as the world eagerly awaits cleaner, friendlier transportation.