Currently reading: Chrysler’s petrol-hydrogen fuel cell concept - Throwback Thursday
In 1993, Chrysler was challenged to create a low-emissions car capable of 80mpg within the next 10 years, how successful was the brand?

Today, alternatively fuelled vehicles are embedded into the motoring public’s collective consciousness.

Electric vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids accounted for 3.2% of all cars sold in the UK in the first half of this year. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, however, make up only a fraction of that figure, although with models such as the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell blazing a trail, there is an emerging market.

More than two decades ago, Chrysler developed a novel take on fuel cell power. The project started in 1993, when then US president Bill Clinton challenged Detroit’s big three car companies – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – to develop a low-emissions car capable of 80mpg and have it on sale by 2003. The programme was known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicle (PNGV).

Chrysler showed how it planned to meet the economy target at the 1997 Detroit motor show, where it revealed a petrol-hydrogen fuel cell system which it hoped to apply to a mid-sized saloon by 1999. This clever new take on the fuel cell system circumvented the need to wait for an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations to develop.

“Instead of waiting 30 or 40 years until we have hydrogen filling stations on every corner, couldn’t one squeeze hydrogen from petrol now and run a fuel cell on the extract?” wrote Autocar’s Michael Scarlett after examining Chrysler’s system in Detroit. “That would get the clean, efficient fuel cell going much sooner. Chrysler believes such a car could be quieter, much more efficient, just as quick and practically a zero polluter. What’s more, it could be on the market within 10 years.”

The system worked by pumping petrol into a fuel vaporiser and burning a very lean mixture of fuel and air in order to turn the liquid into vapour.

“The vapour is then fed to the partial oxidation reactor, which is basically a metal can with a spark plug,” explained Scarlett. “The vapour is mixed with a small quantity of air and ignited. Partial combustion produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

“Carbon monoxide cannot be permitted to enter the fuel cell, so it is removed using a process which uses steam and a catalyst to convert most of it to extra hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen is then mixed with air, then pressurised and flowed through a 5ft-long stack of fuel cells.”

As project leader Christopher BorroniBird explained to Autocar back in 1997: “The idea is to generate hydrogen without any impurities harmful to the fuel cell. With today’s engines you have to treat the gas in the exhaust; here we’re treating the fuel before it goes into the engine. In a sense the fuel cell is an emission control device.”

Borroni-Bird also explained that Chrysler’s pragmatic new fuel cell system wasn’t limited to petrol conversion. “The processor will burn anything: gasoline, diesel, methane or alcohol,” he said. “But it is still very much on the drawing board.”

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Chrysler’s engineers believed that this unorthodox petrol-fed hydrogen fuel cell vehicle could, if fully developed, produce up to 50% better fuel efficiency than contemporary petrol engines. They also predicted a similar range to petrol cars, along with a 0-60mph time of less than seven seconds.

Despite a raft of publicity for this concept and other fuel cell projects during the 1990s, hydrogen has taken another two decades to reach our public roads in any significant way. 

29 January 1997

Previous Throwback Thursdays

11 October 1986 - Hyundai's second UK market foray

15 March 1980 - Triumph's TR7 Drophead

13 February 1991 - Mercedes F100 predicts future car technology

16 April 1997 - A modern 'Blower' Bentley 

19 June 1991 - Volkswagen Polo G40 tested

12 April 1946 - BMW's K4 streamliner

25 October 1989 - Ford Fiesta XR2i vs Peugeot 205 GTi 

30 April 1965 - Car racing on the Isle of Man 

3 April 2002 - Honda NSX vs Nissan Skyline GT-R

22 January 1997 - Rover reinvents the Mini

29 January 1997 - Driving the Dodge Viper Venom 600

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xxxx 28 July 2016

comments of quotes on over selling the Hydrogen power car

"Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, however, make up only a fraction of that figure" or as I like to put it 0 genuine public sales in the UK.

"hydrogen has taken another two decades to reach our public roads in any significant way" - Really, significant way, 0 genuine sales to the UK public in the last 20 years

Overdrive 28 July 2016

To this totally unscientific

To this totally unscientific mind, the petrol-hydrogen fuel cell concept sounded like a good idea, especially seeing as it didn't a massive investment (in time and money) to develop new infrastructure to make it work. Shame it didn't take off.
kcrally 28 July 2016

You can buy a BMW electric

You can buy a BMW electric car.