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Fuel-Cell Partnership Scrambles to Try to Perfect the Technology

November 29, 2000|JEFF YIP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WEST SACRAMENTO — Motor-sports fans poking around the headquarters of the California Fuel Cell Partnership are reminded of a racing paddock.

Crews wearing the logos of DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Nissan and Toyota tend to gleaming vehicles that sport eye-catching paint schemes and graphics. There are even roll-down doors to shield cars and equipment from prying eyes.

Although this is, to be sure, a high-stakes race, NASCAR or CART are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, the competition here pits the major auto makers in a race to develop nonpolluting vehicles in time to meet the deadline for California's zero-emissions vehicle mandate.

Cars and trucks that qualify as ZEVs (or near-ZEVs) have been an environmental Holy Grail in California since 1996, when the state Air Resources Board adopted regulations requiring that a significant portion of the major auto makers' 2003 model year fleets consist of such cars and trucks. The present rules call for at least 4% of those retail fleets to be ZEVs.

Now, with only about 24 months to go and a ton of technology still to be developed, no one is certain which type of ZEV will ultimately prevail.

The current crop of battery-driven electric vehicles seems destined to fill only a niche market. Battery technology has failed to catch on with mainstream users, either from consumers' qualms about range and cost (and despite their best marketing efforts, to hear the auto makers tell it) or from the auto manufacturers' failure to adequately promote the vehicles (to hear EV enthusiasts and environmentalists tell it).

No one has yet figured out how to make gasoline, diesel fuel, propane or natural gas that is free from emissions when burned in an internal-combustion engine.

And though hybrids such as Honda's Insight and Toyota's Prius--powered by a combination of electric motor and gasoline-fed internal-combustion engine--deliver impressive fuel economy of 50-plus miles per gallon, they fall short of the mandate's ideal of zero emissions.

That seems to leave fuel cells and the 1 1/2-year-old partnership--a Sacramento-based consortium of auto makers, fuel-cell developers and fuel companies--as the best bet.

Fuel cells use oxygen and hydrogen to produce electric current. When pure hydrogen is used, the only byproduct is distilled water, itself a combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Fuel-cell vehicles can also run on methanol, ethanol or other petroleum-based fuels by using on-board processing units called fuel reformers to distill the hydrogen from the mix. These are not quite pure zero-emissions systems, though, because they leave small amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as byproducts.

California's zero-emissions mandate would classify such vehicles as partial ZEVs.

One big wrinkle, however, is that there is no infrastructure for delivery of hydrogen to refueling stations. For that reason, advocates say the pure hydrogen fuel cell will probably be best suited for taxis, municipal vehicles and other fleet cars and trucks that can take advantage of central fueling stations.

Meanwhile, consortium members DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen are cooperating to work out standards as basic as the shape and size of the refueling apparatus.

The good news is that fuel cells, long employed on spacecraft, have been getting smaller and less expensive and thus are closer to being a realistic propulsion alternative for passenger cars and trucks.

And there is a demand.

"The population in general is leaning toward green with all kinds of goods," said Thad Malesh, who analyzes alternative vehicles for J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura Hills. "Our research shows that one-quarter of auto buyers are interested in cars that are environmentally friendly." That figure has held steady for four years, Malesh said.

With younger buyers entering the market, he said, "we may see an increase in that percentage, even in the next couple of years."

Even the most optimistic engineers and industry analysts, however, say it is likely to be a decade or more before fuel cells become economically feasible for a broad range of consumers. Indeed, even with eight major auto makers, the leading fuel-cell developers and several state agencies joining forces, the fuel-cell partnership expects to have only 50 vehicles on the road by 2003.

*

DaimlerChrysler gave journalists an early peek at one such ZEV-in-progress, the Necar (for "New Energy Car"), in advance of the fuel-cell partnership's recent open house in West Sacramento.

That Nov. 1 public event featured ride-and-drives of the Necar as well as Ford's Focus FCV, Honda's FCX-V3 and GM's Zafira fuel-cell research vehicles. Models of the other partners' fuel-cell vehicles also were on display.

The Necar--based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, a tiny four-door sedan sold in Europe--was outfitted with a Ballard Power Systems Mark 900 fuel-cell stack rated at 75 kilowatts, or roughly 100 horsepower.

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