- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

The Chrysler Group recently allowed reporters to test drive its third-generation fuel-cell concept, the Chrysler Town & Country Natrium. The vehicle and the test drives of it demonstrate how far the automobile industry has come with alternative-fuel vehicles and the innovative thinking going into them.

The Natrium minivan is equipped with fuel cells, devices that use hydrogen to generate electricity that, in turn, powers motors to propel the vehicle. Virtually every major automotive manufacturer has fuel-cell programs because they believe fuel cells will be the vehicle propulsion system of the future. The beauty of fuel cells is that they produce zero emissions no greenhouse gases nor smog-forming compounds. The only emissions are water and water vapor.

Yet, one of the major challenges for fuel-cell vehicles is the storing and infrastructure for hydrogen, the most abundant element on the planet. No hydrogen fueling station network exists. Compressed hydrogen requires bulky tanks; liquid hydrogen requires thick, insulated tanks that can maintain it at -253 Celsius. Both methods involve keeping hydrogen at high pressures, which means it could explode during a collision. Work is under way to make hydrogen tanks safer. Another option is to dispense with tanks altogether and store hydrogen in a device that looks like a metal sponge.

In this scenario, the hydrogen is chemically bonded to the metal and released when warmed by waste heat from the fuel cells.

For now, however, the metal sponge is unable to hold enough hydrogen to meet the vehicle's energy needs.

Another possible scenario under study is creating hydrogen on board the vehicle. Auto manufacturers are looking at on-board reformers that could break hydrogen out of common fuels like gasoline and methanol for which an infrastructure exists. But reformers consume under-hood space and are complicated mechanisms that have not yet been perfected.

At General Motors, which showed an innovative fuel-cell vehicle called the AUTOnomy at January's Detroit auto show, fuel storage is the highest priority. GM is looking at four or five approaches.

In Chrysler's Natrium (the Latin word for sodium), the fuel cell runs on sodium boro-hydride, a naturally occurring compound chemically related to borax. Yes, it is the same borax used in laundry detergent, including the one of the same name famous for the team of mules on the front of its box.

In the Town & Country Natrium, sodium boro-hydride is mixed in a tank on the vehicle where the gas tank might typically be. The mixture passes through a catalyst, which separates the hydrogen gas and leaves sodium boride, or borax, as a residue.

Theoretically, though the infrastructure doesn't currently exist, the vehicle could go to a fueling station to fill up on sodium boro-hydride and dump off the borax slurry residue, which could then be recycled.

Chrysler likes the borax alternative because the chemical is abundantly available around the world.

Developing an infrastructure appears less challenging than for other fuels proposed for fuel cells. Sodium boro-hydride is nontoxic and nonflammable and can be recycled, potentially providing an endless supply. In addition, a tank is about the size of a regular gas tank, which can power the concept vehicle about 300 miles, much farther than that of other fuel-cell vehicles.

By way of comparison, three tanks of hydrogen, like those Chrysler displayed at the test drive, consume significantly more space and will take the vehicle only 190 miles.

The Natrium sounds and feels like an electric car.

Instead of an engine, one hears the whir of the fuel cell operating and the occasional sound of the device mixing the solution or the hiss of a release valve that emits hydrogen when the system has created too much hydrogen.

The only emission is the drip of water from the tailpipe.

It may not be the final answer for fuel cells, noted Bernard Robertson, Chrysler's senior vice president of engineering technologies and regulatory affairs, but it is an innovative approach that is worth pursuing.

Indeed, Chrysler will continue work on the Natrium with its fuel-cell partner, Ballar/XCELLSiS, of Vancouver, Canada, and Millennium Cell Inc., of Eatontown, N.J., which developed the Natrium's Hydrogen on Demand system to produce the hydrogen from sodium boro-hydride.

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