Alternative power sources for autos drive into spotlight

A sci-fi-looking sedan called i-Blue is a teaser suggesting how the South Korean automaker might attempt to make hydrogen fuel-cell cars sexy. It was designed from the ground up to be a fuel-cell vehicle and escapes the packaging compromises involved in converting a vehicle from gasoline to fuel-cell power.

Hyundai says it would have a range of 372 miles, a big jump from the 186-mile range of Hyundai's test fleet of Tucson SUVs converted to run on fuel-cell power instead of gasoline. Hyundai plans 32 of those Tucson demonstrators in the USA. The car company says it will put fuel cells into mass production between 2012 and 2015.

•Mercedes-Benz.

The automaker says a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its ML 450 SUV, bound for the USA in about two years, would be the most fuel-efficient model in its class, but didn't specify fuel economy. Mercedes says it will use its 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 mated to electric motors.

The automaker also plans a so-called mild hybrid version of its S-class flagship sedan that, according to Automotive News, would use sophisticated lithium-ion batteries. They store more energy than the nickel metal-hydride batteries that today's hybrids use, and are seen as the breakthrough that could make pure electric cars practical.

Mercedes-Benz spokesman Rob Moran wouldn't say what batteries are planned for the S hybrid.

Lithium-ion batteries are expensive. They also get very hot and have to be cooled evenly and precisely to prevent a chain reaction that could ruin all the batteries in the battery pack.

If Mercedes has found a way to deal with those issues, it could give hybrid technology — and the improved fuel economy that it promises — a big boost. It also could invite development of electric-only vehicles, which could boast extended driving range on lithium-ion cells.

•Nissan.

Mixim is an electric-only vehicle that signals the company's NSANY intention to put an electric on sale in Japan early next decade and into other countries later.

Mixim uses lithium-ion batteries that are designed for rapid recharge — 20 to 40 minutes — by plugging the car into a wall outlet. One electric motor drives the front wheels, another drives the rears.

Nissan says the technology is at hand to build Mixim today, but the cost would be too high. The car would go about 155 miles on a charge and would have a top speed of about 110 mph, Nissan says.

Nissan and electric supplier NEC jointly are developing what they call laminated lithium-ion cells which can be smaller and store more energy than other types of lithium-ion batteries. The laminated construction makes it easier to cool the cells, Nissan says.

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