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This Zafira-based vehicle is powered by gas: liquid hydrogen.

The Future Is Not Quite Now

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Fuel cells have been used as power generators in satellites and submarines for years. Indeed, the principle of the fuel cell was discovered back in 1840 by English physicist, Sir William Grove. So why is it taking so long for the fuel cell to become a source of power for the automobile?

Clearly there are major problems to overcome: cost and complexity are the two biggest stumbling blocks, not to mention establishing a supply infrastructure. But despite the obstacles, the world's major automotive manufacturers are committed to fuel cell vehicle production and they are making progress. One indicator of just how much impact the fuel cell revolution—when it comes—may have on the world economy can be seen in the comments of Sheik Yamani, Saudi Arabia's former oil minister. Yamani recently stated that he believed the "oil age" is coming to an end due to technologies like the fuel cell. "This will happen before the end of the decade and will cut gasoline consumption by almost 100%. Imagine a country like the United States, the largest consuming nation, where more than 50% of their consumption is gasoline. If you eliminate that, what will happen?" he said.

According to a New York-based research group, Allied Business Intelligence (ABI), the coming of automotive fuel cells will cause wild swings in oil prices. "By the second decade of this century, mass production of automotive fuel cells will result in first, a glut in the world oil supply and then, in a total rejection of oil as a vehicle fuel," said an ABI spokesman.

That is strong talk, which may or may not be supported by events. As I said, fuel cell development is proceeding, but it is by no means clear that we will all be driving around in fuel cell powered cars quite that soon.

DaimlerChrysler recently claimed that it would become the world's first automaker to launch fuel cell vehicles on the market. The company stated it will deliver fuel cell powered city buses in mid-2002, followed two years later by fuel cell cars. Interestingly, DaimlerChrysler also said that in two years it will start powering its Tuscaloosa, Alabama, M-Class plant with a stationary fuel cell generator, manufactured by its subsidiary MTU Friedrichshafen. According to Jurgen Schrempp, DaimlerChrysler chairman, the company will invest $1-billion in fuel cell development by 2004.

Though DaimlerChrysler's claims sound impressive, the fact is that city buses are relatively easy vehicles in which to install fuel cells; the real challenge is their use in cars. And DaimlerChrysler's fuel cell car launch target of 2004 is no sooner than any of its rivals. Indeed, Honda is claiming it will have a fuel cell car ready in 2003. In any case, the more important questions to ask are how many fuel cars will a manufacturer have available for sale to the public (not just to fleets), and for what cost?

Ford and General Motors are hard at work on fuel cell development and, like DaimlerChrysler, they face similar challenges. Having recently driven GM's experimental fuel cell car, the Zafira "HydroGen1", I can attest to both the progress being made and the problems still faced. GM claims the HydroGen1 is the world's most "operational" fuel cell car yet. The reason, says Dr. Erhard Schubert, director of Opel's Global Alternative Propulsion Center in Russelsheim, Germany, is that its "systems architecture is better and its stack performance is superior to its rivals."

Compared to a previous European-focused GM fuel cell project vehicle, which was also based on the Zafira compact minivan, the latest version differs in several important respects. Firstly, the Zafira's hydrogen is stored in liquid form in a 75-litre, insulated stainless steel tank located under the rear seat. The earlier concept derived its hydrogen from an on-board methanol reformer. Most importantly, the fuel cell stack itself has been reduced in size and is now claimed to be 15% smaller than rivals. The complete stack—comprising 195 single cells—and the 55-kW, three-phase AC motor, weigh just 68 kg and the whole assembly fits in the Zafira's standard engine bay.

The location of the liquid hydrogen tank raises the rear seat height 30 mm and also means the cargo area loses its fold away seats and sits 100 mm higher. But otherwise, Opel says the Zafira's functionality is unimpaired, and the company adds that computer crash simulations prove the tank's location would not be a safety hazard in an accident. Overall, the five-seat project vehicle's weight is 150 kg more than the standard Zafira's 1425 kg. With 251 Nm of torque available from standstill, Opel claims the fuel cell Zafira will accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 16 seconds. A top speed of 90 mph and range of 250 miles (impressive for the vehicle's size) are claimed.

Driving the car, one's main impressions are of its lack of noise—the fuel cell air compressor is the only prominent sound—and its swift rate of acceleration from rest. Unfortunately, a misbehaving sensor—the GM engineer did not know which one—would cause the drivetrain to shut down from time to time. From my brief drive it was clear that the concept is progressing—the HydroGen1 is more refined to drive than last year's DaimlerChrysler Necar4, for instance—but there is still much work to be done before such a vehicle can be offered to the general public.