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Driving Clean Machines
by Catherine Pawasarat

Some ideas simply take a long time to catch on. Over 160 years ago in the early days of electrochemistry, British physicist Sir William Grove produced electricity, using hydrogen and oxygen as fuels. With the later development of the internal-combustion engine, practical interest in the earlier technology flagged. Today, however, the world’s major automakers are falling over themselves to develop commercially viable vehicles that utilize the same principle as Grove’s device, which goes by the name of the fuel cell.

Unlike batteries, which also work electrochemically, the electrical energy produced by fuel cells is not stored, but used immediately to power an engine. And unlike batteries, fuel cells are almost endlessly rechargeable. Compared with conventional fossil-fuel power sources, fuel cells are extremely clean and efficient, with water as practically the only waste product.

The main problem in using fuel cells to power an automobile is the source of hydrogen (oxygen comes from the atmosphere). Hydrogen can be an explosive gas, and so its handling demands special care: it must be highly pressurized or liquefied at ultra-low temperatures to be used effectively as a fuel source. To meet the practical needs of the owner of a fuel-cell vehicle (FCV), a supply network for hydrogen fuel would have to be in place. In this regard, Shinichi Ishii, a transportation-systems consultant at Nomura Research Institute, observes, “If we can’t use existing petrol stations, consumers will have to pay for any change to the infrastructure. And if that is too expensive, it won’t happen.”

Currently, most automakers are experimenting with FCVs that run on hydrogen derived from either a cleaner form of gasoline or from methanol (wood alcohol). Extracting hydrogen from either requires an on-board device called a reformer. “Using hydrogen directly as fuel means you don’t need a reformer in the car, which makes it easier for the car manufacturer,” explains Shinichi Yano of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “But there are few hydrogen-filling stations around. So for the near future, automakers are looking at methanol or a cleaner kind of gasoline because these could be supplied at existing gas stands.”

A powerful alliance of Toyota, General Motors and ExxonMobil is concentrating primarily on FCVs powered by reformed gasoline. Toyota, though, is not ignoring the possibility of using pure hydrogen fuel. It has developed an FCV based on a Sport Utility Vehicle equipped with a high-pressure hydrogen tank, which it aims to bring to market sometime in 2003. In addition, Toyota has jointly developed a bus with such a tank. This FCV is due to start public testing in Tokyo next year. Since buses have fixed routes, they are easier to refuel.

Japan’s approach with regard to FCVs is rather different to that adopted elsewhere. Executive Director of the Tokyo-based Fuel Cell Development Information Center Takuya Homma observes, “Japan is going in the direction of gasoline. But Europe aims to introduce fuel cells that don’t use petroleum.”

Another industry leader in FCV research is DaimlerChrysler, which is pursuing mostly methanol-powered vehicles in an alliance with Ford Motors, Mazda and the Mitsubishi group. But, like Toyota, DaimlerChrysler has developed buses fueled by pure hydrogen. These are operating in several European cities, and DaimlerChrysler plans to put them on the market by late 2002, making it the first automaker to sell FCVs. Passenger vehicles are expected to become available in 2004. “We won’t be selling hundreds of thousands of them at first because they’ll be expensive,” comments Shinya Kuroiwa of DaimlerChrysler Japan Holding. “But we’re aiming to make the passenger cars the same price as diesel vehicles by 2010.”

Honda Motors is going one step further in FCV development. Its FCV prototypes are fueled by pure hydrogen, with a model due for market by 2003. This summer, it started testing a process that uses solar energy to generate hydrogen from water, and this hydrogen would be used to power a special Honda FCV, also undergoing testing. “Everyone is talking about fuel cells, but we want to make clean hydrogen,” says Honda’s Noriko Okamoto. “With our solar energy station, Honda is the first automaker to create a hydrogen station.”

Cost, of course, is the last major barrier to marketing FCVs. One story goes that Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi was interested in buying an FCV and asked Toyota’s ex-president about the price. Koizumi was told that it would come to a staggering 300 million yen. No doubt automakers are looking at the day when people other than those on a prime minister’s salary will be able to consider buying one of these newfangled, old-technology vehicles.


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