Mercedes-Benz has spent the last 15 years developing hydrogen fuel cell technology intended to wean us away from the fossil fuels that have powered our vehicles for the last century.
Fuel cells operate on a simple principle: hydrogen is passed across a membrane and combines with oxygen from the atmosphere. Electrons freed from the ensuing reaction create a current, which powers an electric motor and propels the vehicle. The only byproduct is water. Hydrogen-powered Mercedes-Benz trucks, buses and passenger vehicles have accumulated millions of test miles in locales as far flung as China, and the technology has evolved into more compact, lightweight and efficient designs.
Mercedes-Benz is confident its hydrogen technology is ready for prime time and is rolling out a lease program for around 100 units of its new fuel cell vehicle this December in California. Dubbed the F-Cell, this innocuous-looking five-door is based on the gasoline-powered B-Class hatchback (available in Europe), but houses a fuel stack and lithium-ion battery sandwiched in a space below the passenger compartment. Storage tanks constructed of lightweight yet strong carbon fiber maintain hydrogen at a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch.
Climb inside and the interior is virtually indistinguishable from a standard, gasoline-powered B-Class (which feels solidly constructed if somewhat austere, in typical German fashion). Press the accelerator and the similarities to traditional cars end. There’s a seamless push of power accompanied by a muffled and almost imperceptible high-pitched whirr, along with the occasional light buzz of a hydrogen pump.
Although the drivetrain adds 551 pounds to the vehicle’s total weight, its relatively low center of gravity masks that mass well. Maneuvering through tight streets reveals relatively nimble road manners and the battery is designed to take over if (or when) the hydrogen runs out. The electric motor produces a total of 136 horsepower and 214 pound-feet of torque, with an estimated cruising range of up to 249 miles. The F-Cell has received full-scale crash certification according to company specifications and is considered a production vehicle, not a prototype.
Mercedes-Benz officials insist that hydrogen technology will continue to progress, but they also acknowledge the inherent “chicken and egg” issues surrounding the creation of an infrastructure to fuel these vehicles. “We are working with the California Fuel Cell Partnership, other car manufacturers, and gas and energy companies to bring together an approach where both stations and cars can be rolled out in the same location,” said Sascha Simon, a department manager of advanced product planning at Mercedes-Benz. He also maintains that hydrogen can be produced from excesses created by the petroleum industry, as well as solar-activated panels which operate on tap water.
Simon asserts that “there is no silver bullet” when it comes to addressing the world’s looming energy problems. But in conjunction with electric, hybrid and clean diesel technologies, advances by Mercedes-Benz suggest that hydrogen fuel cell technology will play a major role in creating a zero-emissions future.