Volvo Turns Gasoline To Hydrogen To Make Electric Cars More Efficient

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2010 Paris Auto Show: Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric

2010 Paris Auto Show: Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric

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Internal-combustion engines typically convert only one-third of the energy stored in gasoline or diesel fuel into usable power. The rest is wasted as heat, noise, or even goes unburnt.

So the question for designers of range-extended electric vehicles becomes: How can onboard liquid fuel most efficiently be used to provide power to electric drive motors once the battery pack is depleted?

Turn gasoline into hydrogen

Volvo's answer is research into onboard reformers that turn gasoline into hydrogen, which would power a fuel cell to generate that electricity at much higher overall efficiency.

This gets around what has become the major stumbling block to production of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles: An entirely new refueling infrastructure would have to be built, nationally or even globally, with--at minimum--tens of thousands of new filling stations to allow drivers to travel continuously throughout the U.S.

Instead, drivers of the Volvo concept could fill up the gasoline tank as they would in a normal car. It's just that the gasoline's complex carbon molecules are disassembled quite differently than if they were vaporized with air and then exploded. The hydrogen is an intermediate part of a more efficient process.

Volvo says that deriving hydrogen from gasoline can be up to 85 percent efficient, roughly three times as good as using the same amount of energy in an internal combustion engine--even including those that power generators, as in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, which uses a 1.4-liter engine to run a 55-kilowatt generator to power its drive motor.

Reformer + fuel cell

Backed by research support from the Swedish Energy Agency, as well as the company Powercell Sweden AB, Volvo is developing a fuel cell that can extend an electric vehicle’s operating range with vastly lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The aim is to have two working prototypes based on the Volvo C30 DRIVe electric vehicle ready for testing in everyday traffic in 2012. It would add the fuel-cell range extender to what is still predominantly an electric vehicle.

Initially, the project will look into reformer technology and how it can work efficiently in a range-extended electric vehicle. The task of the reformer is to break down a liquid fuel, in this case gasoline, and create hydrogen gas.

From gasoline, air, and water to hydrogen and CO2

In essence, a portion of the energy in the gasoline is used to break down the rest of the gasoline into components by adding air and water. Through a series of chemical reactions, the hydrogen is segregated and used to power a fuel cell that generates electricity to drive the car.

Three processes take place, with two transformations happening simultaneously. A small portion of the gasoline (CxHy) in the reformer is partially oxidized using the oxygen (O2) from air, which gives off copious amounts of heat energy. The outputs are hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), and the remainder of the fuel:

CxHy + O2 --> H2 + CO + (CO2)

That heat, in turn, is used to turn water (H2O) into steam, which reacts with the remaining fuel to produce large volumes of hydrogen, along with some carbon dioxide (CO2). and more carbon monoxide:

CxHy + H2O --> H2 + CO + CO2

The final step is to add more water to the carbon monoxide, producing still more hydrogen and carbon dioxide:

CO + H2O --> CO2 + H2

The hydrogen then powers the fuel cell, which produces electricity from the electrons given off when the hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce water vapor and energy. Fuel cell efficiencies are typically 50 to 60 percent.

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Comments (7)
  1. i simply dont think it is gonna be needed. battery improvement will get us where we want to go.

  2. I'm sorry but, what a F-ing waste! All that work and money and it doesn't even achieve zero emissions!! All that hydrogen talk is BS, it's only an incredibly more complex hybrid, we need to start moving away from gasoline and Volvo is wasting time prolonging the use of oil and gas. Oil will run out and stupid ideas like this will only delay the inevitable. Lets take the people who wasted their time on this and get them working on battery technology.

  3. hey cd,
    dont let it worry ya. we already have the battery technology. whenever it suits the bigwigs (i.e. it is profitable to them), they will release an improvement to the batteries.
    i have lived long enough to see the same ol thing over and over and over.
    10 years from now, the ev will be so much better than a gas car that it makes me laugh when i hear people think we will be buying new gas cars still.
    this first little flurry is bringing in the people who can afford to spend, and simply want to be the first on the block with a new toy.
    as the snowball continues to roll down the mountain, it will accumulate a new wave of people.
    each new wave will require something new to bring them in.
    the automobile industry hasnt seen this sort of revolution for 100 years.

  4. Is the total range just 155 miles? It seems then, that it would be even more efficient to just have a bigger battery pack and plug it in...

  5. ev, I'm not worried, I just found the details of Volvo's project extremely maddening.

  6. i know. look at audi saying they are gonna have a diesel model of each of their cars by 2015. that takes the cake and the icing, too. i think they may have put a few of those nuts in their marketing positions - LOL.

  7. Interesting piece of technology. What seems strange to me is that the normal problem with hydrogen is that it takes about 3 times more energy to run a hydrogen car than an EV. However, in this case, the claim is that the system is quiet efficient.
    Perhaps the difference here is the starting energy source. If you start with electricity and need to make hydrogen, then it is probably very inefficient.
    However if you start with gasoline and want to make torque, perhaps a fuel cell works better than an ICE engine.
    The other knock against hydrogen is usually the cost of the fuel cell. Wonder how Volvo is doing with that.
    John C. Briggs

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