Chrysler Offers Fuel Cell Van with Soapy Twist
By Justin Hyde
DETROIT (Reuters) - A chemical cousin of laundry detergent could make
clean-running cars and trucks a reality, if a new fuel cell concept
vehicle from the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG proves its worth.
Chrysler said its Natrium concept minivan pairs a hydrogen powered fuel
cell with a novel fuel storage system that uses borax, the active
ingredient in many detergents. The setup offers a way around some vexing
problems that have hindered the development of hydrogen-powered fuel
cell vehicles, which hold the promise of pollution-free transportation.
``The most important unresolved issue with fuel cell vehicles is not the
fuel cell -- it's the fuel,'' said Thomas Moore, head of Chrysler's
Liberty research and development group, in a statement released Tuesday.
Fuel cells use hydrogen to produce electricity with only heat and water
as byproducts. Automakers are spending billions of dollars on the theory
that fuel cells will eventually replace polluting internal combustion
engines as power sources in cars and trucks.
But most automakers have also said it would be at least a decade before
fuel-cell vehicles are common, in part because of the problems with
storing and using highly flammable hydrogen. Concepts from General
Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and several other companies either use
``reformers'' to extract hydrogen from liquid fuels or try to store pure
hydrogen in large, high-pressure tanks.
Both methods have drawbacks in cost, weight and size. Reformers require
either gasoline or methanol, and produce some pollution on their own.
And the driving range of fuel cell concept vehicles so far has been
about half or less of similar production vehicles.
To solve those problems, Chrysler's system stores hydrogen in sodium
borohydride powder, which is nonflammable and nontoxic. After mixing
with water, the solution is passed through a catalyst which separates
the hydrogen gas and leaves only sodium boride, or borax, as a residue.
The borax can then be recycled into sodium borohydride.
Unlike gasoline, the chemicals in Chrysler's system are readily
available in North America and much of the world. A tank of sodium
borohydride solution about the size of a regular gas tank can power the
concept vehicle about 300 miles -- much further than other fuel-cell
There are several problems Chrysler hasn't solved yet, the major one
being how to deliver the chemicals and recycle borax once it's used.
Chrysler and its partner on the Natrium, Millennium Cell Inc., said they
also needed to develop a better method for putting hydrogen back into
the chemicals; the current process uses natural gas and produces some
Chrysler said the Natrium would be provided later next year as a test
vehicle to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a government and
industry joint venture aimed at testing fuel cell vehicles and speeding
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