Nissan takes a different approach to fuel cells: ethanol

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When the world at large thinks of fuel-cell vehicles—to the extent it does, at least today—they are associated with hydrogen as the fuel to power them.

But a fuel cell, more broadly speaking, is any device that produces electricity from a variety of input fuels or energy carriers.

This morning, at a briefing in Japan, Nissan said it planned to develop vehicles using fuel cells powered by ethanol rather than hydrogen.

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And, Nissan said, it will commercialize its technology by 2020, which is when the first vehicles to use the system will arrive.

It said that using liquid ethanol fuel as a source to generate hydrogen within the vehicle itself would be cheaper and easier than setting up a fueling infrastructure to deliver hydrogen at high pressures to vehicles around the world.

That's the approach taken by the three Asian makers whose fuel-cell vehicles will be on the market before the end of this year.

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

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The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, Toyota Mirai, and Honda Clarity Fuel Cell all store hydrogen at 10,000 psi in heavily reinforced tanks in the floor and cargo areas of the vehicle.

They must be fueled at the latest generation of hydrogen stations, which are now opening in Japan, northern and southern California, and Germany, among other locations.

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Those stations cost $1 million to $2 million apiece, and building them often requires additional permitting and approvals compared to conventional liquid-fuel stations.

The technology Nissan plans to use in its future fuel-cell vehicles uses heat to reform ethanol into hydrogen to feed what is known as a solid oxide fuel cell, or SOFC.

Slide from Nissan presentation on 'e-Bio Fuel Cell' technology, June 2016

Slide from Nissan presentation on 'e-Bio Fuel Cell' technology, June 2016

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In it, oxygen ions rather than protons move through the electrolyte to produce water and electricity.

The vehicle would include a tank for a blend of water and ethanol, which is fed into an onboard reformer that splits it into pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

The liquid fuel could be an ethanol-water blend at a 55:45 ratio, Nissan suggested.

The hydrogen produced in the reformer is fed into the solid-oxide fuel cell, which generates electricity at a relatively steady rate to supply power to the electric motor driving the wheels, through a battery that handles peak power demands and stores regenerated energy.

Heat from the fuel cell is used in the reformer, Nissan said, creating a highly efficient system.

Slide from Nissan presentation on 'e-Bio Fuel Cell' technology, June 2016

Slide from Nissan presentation on 'e-Bio Fuel Cell' technology, June 2016

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Compared to vehicles that require hydrogen as fuel, the so-called "e-Bio SOFC" system can approach carbon neutrality, Nissan said.

That's because the carbon dioxide emitted during the process of reforming the ethanol into hydrogen has previously been removed from the air by the plants used to produce ethanol—whether corn, sugar cane, or other feedstocks.

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Vehicles and refiners can adapt existing fuel-delivery infrastructure to provide ethanol, Nissan notes, rather than creating a high-pressure hydrogen delivery infrastructure from scratch and supplying it with hydrogen to be pumped into vehicles.

"The cost and energy required to produce hydrogen can be very high," said Nissan executive vice president Hideyuki Sakamoto at a media briefing, "and it also requires significant investment in (fuelling and storing) infrastructure."

In addition, filling a tank with ethanol takes no longer than a gasoline fill-up. Nissan said its system would provide a range of up to 800 km (500 miles).


 
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