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What Is a Hybrid Electric Vehicle?

A hybrid electric vehicle combines two sources of energy such as a battery-powered electric motor and a conventional internal combustion engine, enabling the driver to decide which source of power is appropriate for the travel requirements of given journey. Short jaunts to the grocery store or the post office could use the electric motor, while weekends in the country may require the internal combustion engine. Major American auto manufacturers are now developing production-feasible hybrid electric vehicles, and some are exploring fuel-cell technology for their electric cars.

An Extraordinary Approach

Chrysler Corporation and Delphi Automotive Systems are collaborating to build a prototype car that would use fuel cells to produce electricity to run the automobile's electric motor. Chrysler has been working with Arthur D. Little, the technology-based consulting firm, to develop this technology. Their goal is to design a fuel-cell system in which the fuel cell, batteries and electric motor are all packaged to fit into a mid-size car. The fuel cell will use an on-board fuel processor in a multi-stage, chemical reactive process to convert gasoline to water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, which will then be used to create electricity to power the car. The fuel cells would thereby deliver the same range as conventional gasoline-powered cars and could significantly improve fuel economy.

Current fuel cells are impractical for a number of reasons. First is the cost; current fuel cells would need to be one-tenth of their current price to be a practical alternative. There is hope, however. Prices have fallen dramatically over the past ten years, and are now only about one percent of 1987 costs.

Another obstacle is technology. Current fuel cells require hydrogen or methanol, which are not readily available to consumers (when is the last time you saw hydrogen for sale at the local filling station?). Furthermore, these fuels are required large quantities so space limitations make it difficult to store sufficient amounts onboard the vehicle. Fuel cells designed to use gasoline offer obvious advantages (one could “fill-up” an electric car at the pump with a standard-sized tank), but they do not yet exist. Another technological hurdle involves start-up time. Fuel cells need about five minutes to warm up before they can be used, so additional batteries may be needed to heat the system to operating temperatures.

Despite these challenges, fuel cells are regarded as one of the most promising future technologies. If the prototype development succeeds, it will revolutionize the automobile industry, offering affordable, environmentally friendly cars with the range, rapid refueling, and performance of conventional vehicles.—OTJ


Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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