AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – If the technology takes off, motorists of the future may be thinking in terms of 20 Mule Team power instead of horsepower.
The Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler AG planned to introduce a fuel-cell vehicle Wednesday fueled with sodium boro-hydride, a chemical compound related to borax, which is used in laundry soap.
The concept vehicle, called the Chrysler Town and Country Natrium, would be unveiled at the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas' Electric Transportation Industry conference and Exposition in Sacra Natrium is the Latin word for sodium.
Fuel cells create electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Ideally, compressed hydrogen would be used as a fuel because it would not create harmful tailpipe emissions.
But because the gas can easily explode, on-board storage tanks must be thick and heavy enough to withstand a collision. The automakers and their partners are working to develop lighter tanks that are still safe.
Gasoline, natural gas and methanol have also been used as fuels, but a reformer must be added to the system, adding weight and cost, and the vehicles are not emission-free.
Sodium boro-hydride is easily available, nontoxic, nonflammable and would produce no emissions, said Thomas Moore, vice president Liberty and technical affairs at DaimlerChrysler.
"It's a promising approach," Moore said.
Moore says the Natrium's range is 300 miles — 100 more than fuel-cell vehicles using other fuels.
The spent fuel is also recyclable, he said. After the fuel is used, it becomes sodium borate, which is chemically the same as borax. It can then be reprocessed into sodium boro-hydride and reused, Moore said.
"It's encouraging news," said Jason Mark, transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"The challenge is to cram enough hydrogen on board to give the vehicle enough range," he said.
The system is not perfect, however. There are several challenges to overcome before it can go beyond the concept stage.
"Number one, we've got to design the cooling system to be able to deal with the waste heat of this reaction," said Christian Mohrdieck, senior manager of fuel cell systems, Liberty and technical affairs at DaimlerChrysler.
He said a less expensive catalyst must be found, and the recycling process must be perfected.
"The efficiency of that process will eventually determine the cost of the fuel," Mohrdieck said.
The Natrium's fuel cell system is produced by DaimlerChrysler's fuel-cell partner Ballard/XCELLiS of Vancouver, British Columbia. The "hydrogen on demand" technology that actually extracts the hydrogen from the sodium boro-hydride was developed by Millennium Cell Inc., based in Eatontown, N.J.
Neither DaimlerChrysler nor Millennium Cell believes this latest technology will solve all the challenges of producing widely available fuel-cell vehicles, but "it's just another idea," Moore said.