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Gasoline-Powered Fuel Cell To Fix Electric-Car Range Anxiety?

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While electric-car advocates may avoid the issue, some buyers simply won't choose a plug-in car that can't travel unlimited distances.

That's where the Chevy Volt-style range extender comes in, though the Volt adds unlimited range by burning gasoline in a conventional engine to generate electric power.

Now a new type of fuel cell offers the potential for a different kind of range extender, one that removes the enormous practical problem facing hydrogen fuel cells: the lack of a distribution infrastructure to fuel vehicles that require pure hydrogen to feed their fuel cells.

Smaller, cooler solid-oxide fuel cells

The new technology, according to Tech Review, improves on the known designs for fuel cells with solid ceramic electrolytes. These solid-oxide fuel cells, already in small-scale use for stationary applications in buildings, have historically been both bulky and extremely hot--operating at up to 900 degrees Centrigrade.

Researchers at the University of Maryland have managed to shrink the size and lower the operating temperature of a solid-oxide fuel cell by a factor of 10, meaning it could conceivably produce as much power as a car engine but occupy less space.

2007 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle

2007 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle

Enlarge Photo

The advances come from new materials for the solid electrolyte, as well as design changes, and the researchers feel they have further avenues for improvement left to explore. They have already lowered operating temperature to 650 degrees C, and their goal is 350 degrees C--making vehicle use much more practical.

Best of all, solid-oxide cells can run on any variety of fuel feedstocks, including gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and propane.

Perfect as range extender

While not suited for frequent on/off cycles, fuel cells are neatly matched to the demands of an electric-car range extender, which provides a steady flow of electricity to a battery-operated vehicle. The battery pack copes with the highly variable power demand, while the fuel cell recharges the pack at a steady rate in the background.

The promise of the new technology is indicated by the fact that research leader Eric Wachsman (he runs the Energy Research Center at the University of Maryland) is now forming a company to commercialize the technology, which has been partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jamie Lee Curtis is one of a select few chosen to lease a Honda FCX Clarity.

Jamie Lee Curtis is one of a select few chosen to lease a Honda FCX Clarity.

Enlarge Photo

As with all such research, it will take many years before it's clear whether the new fuel cell design can be reliably produced in bulk and at a cost that makes it practical for the uses Wachsman envisions.

Twice as many miles from 1 gallon

But internal combustion engines only transform a quarter of the energy content of gasoline into torque to a car's wheels. The new design could, theoretically, double that figure.

And if it does, it solves at one fell swoop the fuel-distribution problem that has bedeviled the prospects for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to date.

As we wrote more than two years ago, while electric cars are being launched by virtually every major carmaker, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles face a host of challenges.

Hydrogen's challenges

Those include an utter lack of distribution infrastructure for vehicle fueling, and a questionable "wells-to-wheels" carbon footprint that depends great on the source of the large amount of energy needed to create pure hydrogen.

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Enlarge Photo

With more than 15,000 plug-in cars added to U.S. roads this year alone, grid electricity will be an increasingly practical way to power shorter trips.

A decade of hydrogen vehicle development has produced perhaps a few hundred, including a couple of hundred "Project Driveway" Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell conversions and a few dozen Honda FCX Clarity models.

For longer trips, we may be stuck with gasoline. It's flammable, possibly carcinogenic, and causes a quarter of a million car fires a year.

But it's out there nonetheless, and if transforming it chemically inside a fuel cell to release its energy proves to be cleaner and more efficient than blowing it up in a combustion engine, that can only be to the good.

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Comments (16)
  1. Wow what a waste of time, they've only found a way to use less gasoline, big deal this won't stop any drilling. All the electric car needs is improved battery technology, simple right? Be patient technology is growing by leaps and bounds, the battery of the future is almost here, look at the Tesla Model S it runs on batteries and can perform like any mainstream car.
     
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  2. 1-Fuel Cells can run on pure Hydrogen which produces only water no CO2
    2-You can use natural gas instead of Hydrogen, using a reformer. Natural Gas has the highest hydrogen to carbon ratio of all hydrocarbons.
    3 - Fuel cells are more than twice as efficient as a regular internal combustion engine, very little energy is wasted as heat
    4 - Fuel Cells directly produce electricity, so they can be combined with regenerative breaking and a small/medium battery pack, for optimal energy savings
    Fuel Cells are an amazing promise for the future. The real issue preventing the fuel cell car is the cost of the fuel cell.
    But for right now, my preference is for a diesel/hybrid car, with products about to go commercial in the 120mpg fuel efficiency.
     
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  3. I KNOW, I've read all about them. But natural gas still requires drilling and shipment. Fuel cells will also keep us chained to the fuel pump and we will still be handling flammable fuel. Go Electric!
     
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  4. > 1-Fuel Cells can run on pure Hydrogen which produces only water no CO2

    The top four Greenhouse gasses:

    Water vapor H2O 36 – 72 %
    Carbon dioxide CO2 9 – 26 %
    Methane CH4 4 – 9 %
    Ozone O3 3 – 7 %

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas
     
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  5. Sounds pretty good. Apparently this runs on all hydrocarbons so probably biofuels too, doubling the efficiency of these fuels. Could be a very practical solution for the range problem.

    The fact that it's steady flow only means this has to come on top of a substantial batterypack though making it doubtful it will solve the cost problem of electric drivetrains. Unless this could be produced at relatively low cost of course. Those cost will need to be low because if this still takes many years of further development it will no doubt be up against some rather more competitive battery tech than is currently used in the industry.
     
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  6. Range Anxiety! Aren't you really tired of hearing that GM crap??? The 2014 Nissan Leaf will take care of all of GM's Range Anxiety and even GM's doubling the price on electrics. That's two years away, not fifty, as GM claims it will take them to get the Volt up to snuff.
     
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  7. I fully support this kind of fuel cell research.

    Gasoline cars are not going away any time soon. While batteries progress, we'll still have the existing liquid fuel infrastructure, which PHEVs like the Chevy Volt are able to leverage. Shifting that "range extender" from ICE to a more efficient and less polluting fuel cell makes perfect sense.

    What doesn't make sense is installing a new and expensive infrastructure to support vehicles that run on compressed or cryogenic hydrogen. The availability of a portable fuel cell that can run on STP (standard temperature and pressure) liquid hydrocarbons would force those self interested hydrogen advocates to finally put a sock in it.
     
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  8. The "perfect" range extender for EV's is the existing and growing charge network.
     
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  9. "Hydrogen's challenges

    ...an utter lack of distribution infrastructure for vehicle fueling, and a questionable "wells-to-wheels" carbon footprint..."

    As was gas stations before they were built... augment current stations with hydrogen units.

    Hydrogen is not alone in the "wells to wheels..."; electricity is as well along with others.
     
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  10. Lilliputian Systems seems to be about to ship just such a system, but it is only for charging small devices (e.g. mp3 players).

    Two things that interested me. First, they have FAA approval not only to have passenger's carry the device on the plane, but operate it as well. Secondly, funding comes from Intel's investment arm and key components are being made by Intel.

    http://articles.boston.com/2011-09-13/business/30150333_1_butane-cartridges-fuel-cell
     
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  11. Need "the enormous ... (forming hydrogen) infrastructure" be so "enormous"?
    Following World War Two, West German utilities mixed hydrogen electrolyzed from water with "natural" gas for home heating, with no extra drilling or "fracking". Now, it finances its own expansion both for Daimler-Benz’s and GM’s incubating hydrogen fuel-cell-car industry, further using booming wind power.
    Here too, we’d add jobs where wind energy runs. At first, early adopters refuel at heating-hydrogen dealers. Rising vehicle production drops costs/prices, raising popularity. Hydrogen dealers shift closer to traffic, giving these cars even easier use. Gas stations there could add profit from hydrogen sales. Filling electric cars would become easy as gasoline.
     
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  12. Energizing electric automobiles as quickly as filling gasoline ones, should relieve "range anxiety" about them, easing some designers’ "sales anxiety". Eventually, most cars could be electric. Our wind can power them.

    Our food market and wildlife’s hunger, need less production (or use) of biofuels’ consequential raising of food's prices and of scarcity (See: Tom Searchinger, "A Quick Fix to the Food Crisis", Scientific American Vol. 305 no. 1, 7/2011, p. 14.). Fermenting either corn or "wild" feedstocks (grasses, etc.) does that.

    Climate needs less petroleum combustion.

    Infrastructures need more benignity.
     
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  13. Distributing the process’ energy could be over long distance power lines into networks of electrolyzing stations.

    - DM.
     
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  14. Hydrogen, however, can be produced directly from renewable resources such as solar, wind and water power.
     
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  15. Revisiting hydrogen fuel cells, about a year later: A solid oxide fuel cell like this, once heat output is better controlled (down to around “... 350 degrees ... C” operating temperatures), distribution is not as great a problem as once expected.

    Germany has distributed H2, mixed in the same pipe network as their natural gas heating fuel since the early postwar (post WWII) years. They have gotten quite proficient at it. We can learn from them.
     
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  16. Once H2-fuel-cell-car availability begins, adventurous early owners can begin to shop for the fuel at heating gas dealers. As Germany did, we can mix pure H2 in with the natural gas, whose molecules are already high in hydrogen ion. As interest builds, the fuel’s outlets can begin moving toward sites closer to their automotive-fuel-market, like today’s roadside outlets for petroleum-based fuels. Like Germany, we also have a heating gas pipeline network from which to build distribution as a fuel cell’s electric motor energy source.
     
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