One of many issues preventing the wider adoption of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles is that they’re tied closely to an infrastructure that’s been painfully slow to develop. Another is that the fussy high-pressure tanks required to store enough hydrogen in fuel-cell vehicles take up a lot of space—space that’s more awkward to plan around than a big battery pack.
California’s Karma Automotive has revived a solution to both of those issues. It announced that it’s collaborating with Denmark-based Blue World Technologies to explore using a fuel-cell system with onboard methanol reforming to power “a variety of future passenger and light commercial vehicles.”
Karma Automotive tests Blue World Technologies fuel-cell system
Put simply, Blue World’s technology uses methanol potentially captured from landfills, and makes hydrogen with it through a system on board the vehicle. It then uses that hydrogen to power a fuel cell—with a battery buffer—that in turn powers motors to move the vehicle.
Such vehicles might claim zero tailpipe emissions, although they wouldn’t be zero-emissions. The fuel-cell system uses high-temperature PEM technology and methanol-to-hydrogen reforming.
Blue World Technologies fuel-cell system
That’s an energy-intensive process that is more efficient than burning gasoline but not nearly as efficient as large scale hydrogen production or an electric car using batteries.
However, methanol can be made using renewable sources “ensuring a CO2-neutral proposition” in a well-to-wheels sense, Blue World notes—a controversial position in itself. Generally, any criteria emissions of the sort that cause smog or local air quality issues are very low compared to any kind of combustion, however.
The company says that such renewable methanol might come from biomass, biogas, or municipal waste.
Blue World also notes that with a typical vehicle tank of 75 liters (less than 20 gallons), a 600-mile range or more is possible. Methanol could be dispensed as a liquid, via equipment that isn’t vastly different than that used for gasoline.
Karma will test a version of its GS-6 plug-in hybrid over the next few months, both in the U.S. and in Denmark. The GS-6 is a more affordable model for Karma, slotting below a revamped version of the Revero GT flagship. Both are essentially continuations of the vehicle once known as the Fisker Karma.
Volvo C30 Battery Electric Vehicle, shown at 2010 Detroit Auto Show
Volvo tried a similar test on a prototype battery electric version of its C30 more than ten years ago, with gasoline instead of methanol, and wasn’t pleased with the conclusions about the end result’s carbon footprint. Nissan has also tested a system with an onboard reformer, using ethanol as the fuel, and has noted that such a system might only be suitable for larger vehicles.
With Karma, many things seem to come full-circle. Quantum Technologies, the former company that originally developed the system that Fisker Automotive licensed for the Quantum, was also a producer of fuel-cell systems, and did some of the pioneering work for high-pressure hydrogen storage.