European Affairs

For One Company, Fuel Cells Are The Future     Print Email
Dr. Ferdinand Panik

Vice President, Head of Fuel Cell Project, DaimlerChrysler AG

The main advantage of the fuel cell is that it can generate the energy needed to drive vehicles while producing very few emissions or even none at all, depending on the type of fuel used. The fuel cell engine thus satisfies demands for a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the transport sector.

Fuel cells can do this because they generate electrical energy directly from a controlled reaction of hydrogen with oxygen in the atmosphere. The byproduct is chemically pure water. The fuel cell uses the energy in the fuel almost twice as efficiently as a gasoline engine.


In the six years since DaimlerChrysler presented its first fuel cell vehicle, NECAR 1, the fuel cell drive system has been reduced dramatically in size and weight and greatly improved in efficiency. The hydrogen carrier methanol, which can be sold through the existing filling station network, is the first fuel in the 115-year history of the automobile in Europe that is not derived from a fossil source. It can even be produced from renewable sources. DaimlerChrysler is cooperating with BP Amoco to develop scenarios for its use.

The fuel cell car NECAR 5 and the Jeep Commander 2 - the first fully functional fuel cell vehicle from the Chrysler Group - demonstrate the technical feasibility of fuel cell vehicles, especially for widespread personal transportation.

Now is the time to figure out which fuel will be used in the mass market, as the answer will affect the design of future drive systems. We are initiating fleet trials with fuel cell vehicles in several key markets, including California.

These tests will help to demonstrate the potential advantages of fuel cell technology and convince both oil companies and governments to prepare a supply infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles. For their part, automakers have already clearly demonstrated their belief that the fuel cell should be taken seriously as an alternative drive system.

The fuel cell industry is growing rapidly. In Germany alone, fuel cell technology has already created more than 1,000 highly skilled, high-tech jobs, about 500 of which are at DaimlerChrysler and its subsidiaries.

The company plans to invest about DM 2 billion (US$905 million) to develop the new drive system to the point of mass production. In the past six years, it has already equipped 16 cars, vans and buses with fuel cell drives, more than all its competitors worldwide.

The fuel cell will be introduced into vehicles in several stages. In 2002, DaimlerChrysler will deliver the first city buses with fuel cells, followed in 2004 by the first passenger cars. Until then, vehicles in the first production phase will use liquid or gaseous hydrogen as a fuel. But these fuels are unlikely to see widespread use because of the high cost of the infrastructure.

We do not expect high unit sales during the first three years the vehicles are on the market, because there will be only a limited number of hydrogen filling stations and the technology must first prove itself in daily use.

A development time of 10 years for a revolutionary new drive system is an extremely short period, considering the enormous challenges. And, of course, customers won't want to buy a test vehicle but will instead demand a thoroughly perfected and proven product.

The breakthrough is expected to come with the mass introduction of the methanol-driven fuel cell car, which will allow the driver to fill up at a service station just like today and drive 500 or 600 kilometers on a single tank.

Many examples in recent years have shown that consumers are usually unwilling to pay for environmental protection by giving up convenience or accepting a higher price. There is hardly a customer around who would sacrifice personal comfort for the environmental soundness of a product.

This is especially true in the mass-produced automobile sector, where demands for comfort and featured equipment, such as air conditioning and all kinds of electric and electronic devices, share equal priority with safety and performance. With the arrival of the fuel cell system, however, it is now possible to produce environmentally sound vehicles with the power, design and performance of traditional vehicles. We believe that fuel cell vehicles could account for 10 percent of the world car market, and more than half the market for buses, by 2020.

The important thing now is to remove all political obstacles standing in the way of the mobile fuel cell as it approaches introduction to the market. Regardless of whether we're talking about the United States, Europe or Japan, the development of fuel cell technology will open up new fields of business. But it will also require new training and production methods. We must begin the transformation process as early as possible in order to safeguard the future mobility of our societies, and thus future economic growth.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.

 
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