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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fuel Cells to Replace Common Car Engine

BONN -- Despite the enormous strides made by technology in the last hundred years, the internal combustion engine that powers cars has changed remarkably little.

But German industrial giant Daimler-Benz, whose founders pioneered the original car engine, is working on a new "pollution-free" electric vehicle driven by fuel cells which could make the most refined gasoline and diesel engines obsolete.

Working with Ballard Power Systems of Canada, Daimler has developed a prototype minivan powered by hydrogen fuel cells instead of gasoline and a battery.

Daimler's research chief, Hartmut Weule, said fuel cells could be "the biggest innovation in propulsion technology of the next millennium."

"We must meet future mobility needs in an environmentally responsible way," he added.

Ballard president Firoz Rasul said the Daimler vehicle was an exciting development and the group was more advanced with the new technology than other car makers.

"This is a major commitment by a car maker to the zero-emission vehicle," he said at a presentation.

The fuel cell idea has been around even longer than the internal combustion engine but its application has been limited.

Now car makers have been sparked into action by a regulation in California requiring that 2 percent of all vehicles sold in the state must be emission-free from 1998.

Daimler's Weule said that fuel-cell research had also accelerated rapidly in recent years because of advances in materials, helped mainly by the development of spacecraft.

The technology works by passing hydrogen through polymer cells which, with the aid of catalysts, convert it to water, releasing an electric current which drives a motor.

Unlike normal car engines, the process does not involve combustion or moving parts and is emission-free and noiseless.

While engineers are excited by its potential, problems remain.

Current fuel cell systems are large, heavy and expensive. It is also difficult and expensive to produce and store sufficient hydrogen to run them.

Most researchers, including Daimler, use methanol, a natural gas derivative, as a way of storing hydrogen. It is stored in a vehicle's tank and passed through a converter, where it is split into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Methanol could be sold at normal petrol stations, giving the vehicle a range comparable with that of conventional cars. This would overcome one of the main problems facing standard, battery-powered electric cars, which is their limited range.

Daimler's Weule said it would be at least a decade before a fuel-cell car was available, although Ballard reckons a bus may be ready by 1998.