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Steering Around Obstacles

But hold on to your checkbook, because more work remains to make the fuel cell vehicle practical. All of its systems are too costly-even pricier than loading a car with batteries-and supplying hydrogen to the stacks is still a struggle.

Ballard’s top challenge is manufacturing cheaper stacks. The company is working with Ford and DaimlerChrysler to optimize its stack designs for cheap, automated production. And to achieve a critical mass of production, Ballard is commercializing fuel cells in multiple markets simultaneously-not just vehicles but portable power generators, residential generators and stationary power plants. Lancaster pegs the breakeven point at about 300,000 stacks per year. “To the extent possible, we’ve used common materials and common manufacturing processes across product lines, so we don’t have to make fuel cells for 300,000 cars to achieve that volume.”

DaimlerChrysler and Ford, meanwhile, are focusing on making the rest of the car. Their biggest headache has been keeping the stacks fed with hydrogen. “The issue with fuel cells has become the fuels. It’s not the fuel cell anymore,” says Mohsen Shabana, who as the fuel cell vehicles program manager at DaimlerChrysler’s engineering technologies operation in Rochester Hills, Mich., is responsible for making Commander II run. All three of the fuels that carmakers are considering-gasoline, methanol and hydrogen-pose serious challenges.

Onboard extraction of hydrogen from gasoline would make the transition to the fuel cell vehicle seamless, since gasoline is everywhere. But refining gas on the go is difficult. The reactions occur above 800 C, making the devices slow to start, and the chemistry is temperamental; while the process is routinely used in chemical manufacturing plants and oil refineries to make industrial volumes of hydrogen, squeezing it under the hood is tricky. Another unsolved problem is protecting the fuel cell from the catalyst-poisoning sulfur in gasoline.

Despite the technology challenges, General Motors and Exxon Mobil have recently announced the joint development of a gasoline fuel processor and say a demonstration vehicle using fuel cells powered by the processor could be ready within 18 months. The automaker argues that while hydrogen will likely be the fuel of the future, gasoline processing technology will provide a critical transition in making fuel cell cars practical.

Others are unwilling to wait for the gasoline processor. DaimlerChrysler is developing a methanol system. Some fuel cells run directly on methanol rather than hydrogen, but fuel cell experts say this technology is at least seven years away from the level of efficiency required to power a car. So using methanol as a fuel today means extracting its hydrogen. Methanol is an easier target than gasoline because it is sulfur-free and yields hydrogen at a relatively mild 300 C. But refining methanol is still a complex process involving many steps, each of which must take place at a particular temperature.

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