After much discussion and many releases about the latest iterations of battery-powered hybrid vehicles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that fuel cell technology had been left behind. Not so. Mercedes-Benz is launching what it says is the world’s first series-produced fuel cell car: the new B-Class F-CELL. This electric car has zero emissions, has a range of 400km, takes three minutes to refuel with hydrogen and consumes the equivalent of 3.3 liters of diesel per 100km in the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle). Mercedes-Benz has a history with fuel cell vehicles, releasing the BlueZERO in December 2008, the F-CELL Roadster in April this year, and the F 600 HYGENIUS in 2005 (all concept vehicles).

As in most hybrids with combustion engines, the fuel-cell car also employs a lithium-ion battery (with an output of 35kW and a capacity of 1.4kWh) to boost power and recover braking energy. Lithium-ion is now the chosen battery technology because it offers several advantages over conventional batteries, including compact dimensions, high performance, excellent recharge efficiency and a long service life.

Mercedes-Benz has a history with fuel cell vehicles, releasing the BlueZERO in December 2008, the F-CELL Roadster in April this year, and the F 600 HYGENIUS in 2005 (all concept vehicles). Production of the new vehicle will commence later this year with a sample quantity. At the beginning of next year the first of around 200 vehicles will be delivered to customers in Europe and the USA.

At the technological heart of the F-CELL is the new generation of compact, high-performance fuel cell systems, in which gaseous hydrogen reacts with atmospheric oxygen at 700 bar to generate a current for the electric motor.

Mercedes-Benz says the fuel cell system of the B-Class F-CELL has a very good cold-start capability even at temperatures as low as -25ºC (-13ºF). The drive system has been completely revamped from the F-CELL A-Class presented in 2004, with Mercedes-Benz engineers achieving considerable improvements in output, torque, operating range, reliability, starting characteristics and comfort.

"2009 is the year in which we are establishing further milestones where sustainable mobility is concerned. The B-Class F-CELL is taking on a pioneering role as the world’s first fuel cell-powered automobile to be produced under series production conditions," says Dr Thomas Weber, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, responsible for Group Research and Development for Mercedes-Benz Cars.

Best of both worlds

Mercedes-Benz says customers will be impressed by much more than the B-Class F-CELL’s performance. The company says the new fuel cell vehicle offers everything that people expect from a Mercedes-Benz: high levels of comfort and safety, plus no reduction in interior space and boot capacity.

The B-Class F-CELL employs the unique sandwich floor architecture that is synonymous with the A- and B-Class. The advantage of this design is that the drive components are located in the sandwich floor, where they are protected while the vehicle’s interior remains fully usable and provides a boot capacity of 416 liters.

The vehicle's features include an eye-catching bonamite silver paint finish and exclusive light-alloy wheels in a ten-spoke design. Inside, leather upholstery, seat heating, automatic climate control and the COMAND-system (navigation).

Mercedes engineers have tested and optimized the drive-specific components’ safety in at least 30 additional crash tests and Daimler and Mercedes-Benz have invested in more than 100 test vehicles with a combined total of over 4.5 million kilometers (2.8 million miles) of trial testing – which they say is the most extensive experience with fuel cell vehicles of any manufacturer worldwide.

However, as with battery-powered electric vehicles, much of the success of hybrid vehicles depends on the availability of refilling/recharging stations in the cities and beyond.

The company says a comprehensive network of hydrogen filling stations still has to be set up before local zero-emission driving can become a widespread reality. To this end, Daimler is working with government authorities, energy utilities and oil companies in joint projects in places such as Hamburg, Stuttgart and California.

Mercedes-Benz views the development of electric cars with battery and fuel cell drives for local zero-emission driving as a means of supplementing vehicles with high-tech internal combustion engines. Advanced diesel and petrol engines will remain important for automotive applications for a long time to come - especially for freight transport in trucks which travel over long distances. However, the company believes electric vehicles will increasingly be used for urban transport.

B-Class F-Cell technical data

  • Drive: Electric motor with fuel cell
  • Rated output (100kW/136hp)
  • Rated torque: 290Nm
  • Maximum speed: 170kmh (105mph)
  • Consumption (NEDC): (3.3 liters diesel equivalent/100km)
  • Total CO2 emission: 0.0
  • Range (NEDC): 385km (240 miles)
  • Capacity of lithium-ion battery: 1.4kWh/35kW