DETROIT - Chrysler Corp. on Monday announced a major development in the search for a practical, long-range electric car - one that relies on inexpensive, low-grade gasoline instead of batteries.
Yes, a gasoline-powered electric car. What makes it possible is the development of a way to extract hydrogen from gasoline while the car is being driven.
It's called "fuel cell" technology. A fuel cell is a device that produces electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The problem for automotive use has been how to get and store the hydrogen efficiently and inexpensively.
"We believe hydrogen needs to be processed from gasoline on board vehicles because hydrogen isn't a practical fuel choice today," said Francois Castaing, Chrysler vice president of vehicle engineering. "Simply put, there are not any filling stations supplying it to a mass market."
In Chrysler's system, a platinum catalyst and an on-board fuel processor break down the gasoline into hydrogen and water. The hydrogen is used by a series of fuel cells to produce enough electricity to power the car's drive motors, air conditioner and other equipment.
Chrysler says the development will cut up to 10 years from the time it will take to create a practical prototype of a fuel-cell car. The No. 3 domestic automaker says it hopes to have a prototype as soon as 2005.
The car is expected to be at least 50 percent more fuel-efficient and 90 percent cleaner than a modern, gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, Chrysler advanced technologies specialist Christopher E. Borroni-Bird told a news conference at the North American International Auto Show.
Last month, General Motors Corp. began leasing the first modern electric car designed solely as an electric vehicle, as opposed to an existing vehicle retrofitted with batteries. GM hopes the EV1 will lead to mass-market demand as the battery technology improves.
The two-seater, available for now only in Southern California and Arizona, is powered by relatively low-tech lead-acid batteries.
Fuel-cell technology was developed for use in spacecraft, but problems in supplying and storing hydrogen have hampered plans to use it for cars. Hydrogen must be highly compressed, and the tanks are heavy and costly.
Developing a practical system to extract hydrogen from gasoline would eliminate those problems, Mr. Castaing said.
"People will still refuel their vehicles the same way they always have, and the gas tanks on their vehicles may actually be smaller than they are today, not bigger and more cumbersome," Mr. Castaing said.
Fuel-cell systems could generate 80 miles a gallon, are quieter and have fewer moving parts than conventional engines, Mr. Borroni-Bird said.
But critics say Chrysler's system is no solution because it would still rely on gasoline, a nonrenewable fossil fuel.
"Chrysler has the right technology, but the wrong fuel," the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a news release. "The true promise of fuel-cell technology will only be realized through the use of renewable fuels, such as hydrogen, methanol or ethanol."
Chrysler spokesman Scott Fosgard said fuel-cell electrics could run on any available liquid fuel, including methane and alcohol.
"If somebody wanted to drive to find a methanol station, they could do that," Mr. Fosgard said.
Mr. Borroni-Bird said the biggest questions are whether the system will be cost-effective. Fuel cells today are too expensive to be practical, though costs are coming down. Engineers also must find a way to provide the quick start-up and acceleration drivers are accustomed to with gasoline engines.