- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Rolling to a stop in a circle next to the Capitol in Washington, the vehicle looked ordinary enough, but it was not a conventional car in any sense.
It was DaimlerChrysler's NECAR 5, a fuel-cell-powered car, that had just completed a 3,652-mile trip that started in San Francisco. This is a distance record for a fuel-cell car.
The trip took the tiny electric vehicle from sea level at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge to as high as 8,675 feet a record altitude for FCVs.
At high altitude, fuel-cell efficiency is diminished because less oxygen is available, similar to the power loss experienced by an internal-combustion engine.
The crew drove through hail, snow and rain, halting at one point to buy tire chains to use on a road closed to vehicles without that equipment.
Scorching heat on the Plains and cabin temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, without air conditioning, tested the crew.
A fuel cell is a device invented during the space program. It combines hydrogen and oxygen and creates water vapor as its only emission.
This device could take the car out of the environmental-polletion equation. At the same time, it would cut our reliance on imported petroleum.
Ferdinand Panik, who heads the DaimlerChrysler fuel-cell program, says the NECAR 5 is the last fuel-cell concept car the company will make. Its next step is to produce vehicles to be leased to selected customers. He says it won't be possible for most consumers to buy a fuel-cell-powered car until the next decade. That's because the vehicles are still in a state of development and the cost would be too high.
The first-generation production cars will be leased at heavily subsidized rates because the low-volume vehicles would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to purchase.
Distribution of the second-generation FCVs still will be limited and lease rates also will be heavily subsidized.
Mr. Panik says there will be no subsidies for the production vehicles sold to all comers in 2010. "The volumes are too large to subsidize." By that time, DaimlerChrysler will have invested about $1 billion in fuel-cell research, says Jurgen Hubbert, a member of the company's managing board and head of the Mercedes-Benz brand.
The NECAR 5 used 300 gallons of methanol during the cross-country trip. A reformer carried aboard the car extracts hydrogen from the methanol and sends it to the fuel-cell where the hydrogen combines with oxygen from air.
Refueling took place every 300 miles even in places where no methanol supply was available.
Methanex, the company that supplied the methanol, had to drop-ship the alcohol to those towns where none was available.
The automaker has tested a series of FCV concepts in its NECAR (for New Electric Car) program that dates back to 1994. DaimlerChrysler seems to have settled on getting hydrogen for fuel cells from methanol.
An earlier NECAR 2 used compressed hydrogen. But obtaining that fuel is even harder than getting methanol. When the company built NECAR 3, DaimlerChrysler engineers showed it was possible to reform methanol to obtain hydrogen.
DaimlerChrysler continued to experiment with using hydrogen directly. NECAR 4 used liquid hydrogen and NECAR 4A switched back to compressed hydrogen.
NECAR 5 and the Jeep Commander 2 concepts convert methanol onboard.
Before Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz, it had looked into onboard reforming of gasoline. This is how General Motors and Toyota get hydrogen for their fuel cells. Mr. Panik says he is pessimistic about gasoline as a source of hydrogen for fuel cells.
Although a gasoline-supply infrastructure exists, the low-sulfur gasoline needed to supply hydrogen to fuel cells is not yet available, he says. The sulfur in conventional gasoline would ruin fuel cells.
Mr. Panik, who also is outgoing chairman of the California fuel-cell partnership, concedes the developmental fuel-cell cars haven't yet demonstrated the durability of internal-combustion-powered vehicles. Fuel cells for buses currently have a life expectancy of only 50,000 miles, which is not competitive with diesel engines.
His target is to double life expectancy of fuel cells by 2007.
A crew of drivers drove NECAR 5, a Mercedes-Benz A-Class equipped with a 75-kilowatt Ballard 900 series fuel-cell stack. The car averaged the gasoline equivalent of about 40 miles per gallon. Mr. Panik says that despite the relatively low fuel economy of the NECAR 5, the car is a "very green" performer. He says there are no particulates, nitrogen oxide or carbon dioxide emissions.
Carbon monoxide emissions are less than half those from an internal combustion (IC) engine. That gives fuel cells a great environmental advantage over IC engines. He also notes fuel cells are almost twice as efficient, attaining an efficiency of about 46 percent compared with 26 percent for an IC engine.

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