- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

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. There's already enough excess methanol production to fuel 10 million fuel cells annually and it is one of the most widely distributed and available chemicals in the world.

NECAR 5 left San Francisco on May 20, on its way straight across the country to Washington. "There were so many doubts about its ability to make it," said Ferdinand Panik, head of DaimlerChrysler's fuel-cell project group and chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. "We pushed the envelope to see how reliable a fuel cell car could be. The fuel cell car is now what the microprocessor was in the 1970s. Now we feel like true pioneers."

There was a lot to worry about, since there were no known studies into how fuel cells would perform at high altitudes the car climbed to 8,675 feet and traveled for 800 miles above 6,000 feet and in differing weather conditions. NECAR 5 encountered snow, wind, rain, hail and 90+ degree temperatures along the way. The car was driven by a team of DaimlerChrysler engineers, accompanied by two Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUVs and a Sprinter Van, guided by a satellite GPS system. Along the way the team collected more than 500 different types of data on the fuel cell and its associated systems.

In all, the trip covered 3,262 miles in 15 days. Actual driving time totaled 85 hours, for an average speed of 32.1 mph. The low average speed included numerous tours through city traffic, but the car actually hit 90 mph (for scientific test purposes only) on the interstate and cruised at prevailing traffic speeds. NECAR 5's repairs included two fan belts, four fuel filters, a plastic water bottle and a rain-shorted electrical connector. No fuel cell failures occurred.

Contrasted with the 1903 Winton trip, that car averaged 3.6 mph and lost wheel bearings, connecting rods, snapped an axle and had numerous fuel shortages.

Is the internal combustion engine dead?

No, it isn't, at least not yet and probably not for the next 20 years or so. That said, we have to face the fact that gasoline engines have just about reached their maximum level of efficiency and cleanliness no matter how much we love the beasts, and boy, do some of us love them.

Many factors are conspiring to end the reign of the gas engine, however, including potentially unstable oil supplies and prices, environmental concerns and sociological trends. That's why the auto manufacturers are experimenting with alternative-fuel and alternative-power systems like hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles. These machines and others like them will undoubtedly be the modes of personal transportation used by our children and grandchildren.

NECAR 5 has just shown our generation what the Winton and Packard showed our great-grandparents in 1903. Change is inevitable and, nearly always, surprising. The Winton car is, by the way, in the Smithsonian and the Packard is in the Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio.

NECAR 5 is surely going to take its rightful and well-earned place in a museum.

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