Chrysler Natrium: The Power of Na

by Bill Rapai

GM Bets on Hydrogen With S-10 (5/5/2002)

Chrysler is finally letting others take a look at the newest alternative in the alternative fuel sweepstakes – a fuel-cell minivan powered by sodium borohydride.

The vehicle, a Chrysler Town & County minivan dubbed Natrium, which is the Latin word for “sodium,” made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Since then, Chrysler has taken the vehicle on a tour of the American west and has shown it off at environmental conferences. Last week, Chrysler let reporters drive the vehicle at its Chelsea Proving Ground. Despite software problems that kept the vehicle from running properly, the potential of sodium borohydride as a fuel was evident and some advantages are clear when compared with other fuel-cell systems.

The Natrium’s sodium borohydride system overcomes some of the daunting engineering challenges that have slowed development of other fuel-cell systems. Yes, the fuel needs to be reformed to split the hydrogen molecules off before being sent to the fuel cell, but this system’s reformer is only as large as two shoeboxes. Furthermore, they are attached to the undercarriage, and do not cut into the passenger compartment. And unlike other potential fuels like gasoline or methane, sodium borohydride contains no sulfur or carbon. The result is the only substance out of the exhaust pipe is water.

The Natrium also has a fuel storage advantage — unlike pure compressed hydrogen, which is highly explosive and corrosive, sodium borohydride is non-toxic, non-explosive and non-flammable. Furthermore, the fuel can be recycled, recharged with hydrogen and reused. Unfortunately, there’s not a sodium borohydride station on every corner.

Playing leapfrog

Chrysler’s system leapfrogs many other fuel-cell vehicles in terms of performance and range. Thomas Moore, vice president and head of DaimlerChrysler’s Liberty and Technical Affairs research and development group, said the vehicle is capable of going 300 miles on 48 gallons of fuel, which is a 30-mpg gasoline equivalent. The Natrium also tops many smaller and lighter fuel-cell vehicles in acceleration, going from zero to 60 in 16 seconds. Those performance numbers are likely to be challenged by General Motors’ gasoline-powered fuel-cell S-10 pickup, which is scheduled to be shown to the media this week.

The Natrium is powered by a 35-kilowatt electric motor made by Siemens and a fuel cell made by Ballard/XCELLSiS, of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Chrysler is co-developing the Natrium with Millennium Cell of Eatontown, N.J. Kathleen McHale, the vice president for marketing and communications for Millennium Cell, said the system has received interest from every U.S. automaker, but only Chrysler came away from a presentation wanting to do something as quickly as possible. It took about 18 months for the Natrium to be built once the decision was made.

The fuel itself was developed by Millennium Cell and is a derivative of borax – yes, that stuff that helps get your clothes clean. And there is plenty of worldwide supply. Because sodium borohydride is able to carry high amounts of hydrogen, it was once considered as a potential rocket fuel. Unfortunately, tests showed that the material turned to glass under high temperatures. McHale said Millennium Cell engineers decided to give the fuel another try in the late 1990s by dissolving it in water. Millennium Cell is also working with Peugeot and other automakers on similar fuel cell systems.

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