While CNET Car Tech in the US was out testing the Aston Martin DB9 Volante in the Santa Cruz mountains recently, we ran across the car's antithesis, a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell research car. We easily caught up with the F-Cell and followed it to a scenic lookout, where we cornered its driver and started grilling him about the car.
A first-generation Mercedes-Benz F-Cell research car surveying California (top). Note the prominent hydrogen gas tanks in the cutaway of the F-Cell (bottom).
(Credit: CNET and Mercedes-Benz)
This F-Cell research vehicle is built on the first-generation A-Class hatch. Its 5000psi — 34,470kPa or about 340 times air pressure at sea level — hydrogen tank feeds a fuel cell that produces electricity, in turn powering an 65kW electric motor.
Driving the car was a Mercedes-Benz engineer stationed in Palo Alto, California. He had pulled into the parking lot not because he thought James Bond was on his tail, but to plug his laptop into the F-Cell and download diagnostic data. The company has logged well over a million miles in F-Cell prototypes, and every mile yields useful data about fuel cell performance in the real world.
That first-generation F-Cell research car has a range of about 180km, and seemed to have no problem negotiating the steep hills where we found it. In contrast, the 12-cylinder Aston Martin we were driving was burning petrol at a rate of around 15.7L/100km, and would ultimately show a range of about 360km.
Mercedes-Benz has a new generation of the F-Cell vehicle in testing right now, based on the bigger B-Class hatch. It uses new materials technology for its hydrogen tanks, storing the gas at 10,000psi (68,950kPa or about 680 times air pressure at sea level), and has a range of around 400km. Its electric motor has 101kW of power and 159Nm of torque, although the fuel cell's output is only 81kW.
As explained in our Future Fuels feature, fuel cell vehicles are basically electric vehicles that use hydrogen than batteries for energy storage. With current technology, fuel cell cars tend to have greater range than pure electric cars. Additionally, hydrogen tanks are lighter than big battery packs, as well as being quicker to "re-fill". However, electric cars have the advantage of an infrastructure (power stations, power points and the like), while a suitable method of producing large quantities of hydrogen has yet to be found. There's also the small matter of the virtually non-existent hydrogen stations to deliver the fuel to drivers.
For more information regarding hydrogen fuel cells, electric cars and biofuels, check out our Future Fuels feature.