With 2009 marking the 40th anniversary of the moon landing there was much fond recollection of the fuel cell electric-powered moon buggies of the later Apollo missions. In the years since the moon landing, the rhetorical question “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we (fill in the blank)?” has become an overused cliché.
It may be, however, that by the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, we will finally have a respectable fleet of fuel cell-powered “earth buggies” humming around on electric power.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show, where the German car makers take special pride in showing off the very best innovations, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a planned limited production fuel cell car based on the company’s subcompact B-Class, a model that is not sold in the U.S.
Mercedes announced that it will build 200 fuel cell-powered B-Class F-Cell cars with production commencing by the end of this year — and according to my sources at the trade magazine Automotive News, half of them will come to the U.S.
When Mercedes begins delivering the cars around the end of the year, it will be the second auto manufacturer to lease fuel cell vehicles to private citizens. Honda has been leasing the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle in very small numbers. General Motors operates a test fleet of fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes, which it gives to people for short loans to gain their feedback, but GM does not lease or sell them.
Mercedes claims that its fuel cell car is the first built under “series production conditions,” rather than slower, more costly one-at-a-time assembly, implying that it could begin mass-producing the model.
The Mercedes B-Class F-Cell car boasts a driving range of 250 miles. Unlike a battery electric car, the fuel cell car can be refueled in three minutes — if you can find a hydrogen filling station, that is. While that is a challenge today, plans are underway to build networks of hydrogen stations in the cities where these cars will be popular, such as Los Angeles and New York, so its practicality will continue to improve.
The drivetrain produces the equivalent of 136 horsepower and 214 lb.-ft. of torque, so acceleration should be more than acceptable for a subcompact car. The tall, roomy cabin of the B-Class should also leave drivers feeling like they are driving a larger class of car, and it is opulently outfitted with all the usual Mercedes amenities, such as leather upholstery, seat heaters and other goodies, so our hundred Mercedes-driving fuel cell pioneers will not suffer as they journey into the future.
Fuel cells are an attractive source of electrical power because the compressed hydrogen fuel tanks are much lighter than the batteries that power electric vehicles. They are also appealing because the sole byproduct of their operation is water, so the fuel cell vehicles themselves make no pollution. However, pollution produced and energy consumed in the production and transportation of hydrogen fuel is another issue and that aspect of fuel cell technology will contribute to pollution concerns.
Fuel cells operate by passing hydrogen and oxygen over a special membrane, which combines the H and O atoms to produce H2O and electricity. They are tricky to manufacture, and the water-soaked membranes are sensitive to everyday realities, such as freezing temperatures, but automakers have tackled those problems one-by-one, and mass production versions of fuel cell vehicles will soon be a reality.
If these pilot projects succeed, then fuel cell earth buggies may enter the mainstream more quickly than we would now put a man on the moon.
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009