Nissan Fuel Cell Runs On Bio-Ethanol


Nissan is experimenting with a new kind of fuel cell, one that runs on bio-ethanol instead of hydrogen. The new system isn’t perfected yet. It runs at higher temperatures than traditional fuel cells, so it takes a while to get hot enough to work at maximum efficiency. But ethanol is plentiful and cheap. Liquid hydrogen is expensive and refueling stations are as rare as hippies at a Donald Trump rally.

Nissan bio-ethanol fuel cell

The process also produces some carbon dioxide in the process that converts ethanol to hydrogen, but Nissan says its system is carbon neutral. The plants like corn and sugar cane that are used to make ethanol in the first place absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are growing. They give some of it back when the ethanol is used as a fuel. Hydrogen also has a carbon footprint. It takes enormous amounts of energy to make free hydrogen. Unless all of it comes from renewable sources, there is a legacy of carbon dioxide emissions built in to the process.

Nissan calls its new technology an e-bio fuel cell and says the system is less costly because it does not need expensive platinum in the fuel cell itself. It also does not need a special tank designed to hold liquid hydrogen at very high pressures. It is looking to bring its new system to market in about 5 years.

“By using this fuel, it can have wider application,” Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said today while announcing the development. “We do not require a hydrogen infrastructure. That is the biggest advantage, along with better safety.”

The infrastructure for transporting and dispensing ethanol already exists. Building a new hydrogen refueling station can cost $3 million or more. Finally, the fuel needn’t be pure ethanol. It can even be a mix of up to 55 percent water, which further brings down the cost of the operation.

Despite developing the new technology, Nissan said it hasn’t given up on traditional hydrogen fuel cell systems. It will continue to develop that technology in parallel with its partners Daimler AG of Germany and Ford Motor Co.

The question, of course, is does the world really need battery electric cars and fuel cell cars? The primary reason why companies like fuel cell technology is that is allows their customers to fill up in about the same time as it takes to refuel a conventional car. The Nissan system would eliminate the biggest hurdle to fuel cell cars today — an almost total lack of hydrogen refueling stations.

Over the next 20 years or so, many technologies will compete for dominance in the transportation sector. Once battery electric cars have a normal range of 200 miles or more and can be recharged rapidly, they may become the technology of choice. But until then, there will be room for alternative technologies.

The Nissan idea is low cost and convenient. In order for drivers to transition away from conventional cars, they will need to be affordable and convenient to operate. The Nissan system may make a lot of sense on an interim basis, once all the kinks its system have been ironed out.

Source: Automotive News  Photo credit: Nissan

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  • Ken

    Just a pity that fuel cells that run on ethanol emit CO2 – at least it is bio-sourced CO2

    • Steve Hanley

      Yup. It’s a good news/bad news situation. But electricity to recharge electric cars often comes with a carbon tail as well. In theory, making ethanol adds no new carbon dioxide to the environment.

      But the fertilizer used to grow corn is made from oil. Some say it takes a barrel of oil to grow a bushel of corn. It also uses a tremendous amount of water to irrigate the crops.

      Transitioning to crops that need less fertilizer and less water would go a long way toward making bio-fuels more sustainable than they are today. Using corn for fuel is about as close to a stupid idea as there is, especially when there are so many environmentally friendly alternatives.

      • smartacus

        i totally agree with you. Not a fan of using corn. When will there be a mass migration to switchgrass already?

        And is this Nissan bio-eth cell different enough for Vanilla Musk not to be able to label it as a “fool cell” 😉

        • Steve Hanley

          No, he will call it a “fool cell” unless it has only a battery and can do the quarter mile in under 12 seconds. Still, it’s an intriguing middle ground and may appeal to some if Nissan can get the price down from the OMG territory that FCEVs find themselves in today.

          Let’s see: Tesla Model 3 for about $45K versus a Toyota Mirai at $60K? That’s not a fair fight.

          • Steve I enjoy reading your articles and responses too. I’ve read somewhere, sorry no link, that there are other ways to create fertilizer that don’t require barrels of oil, such as processing food waste into compost, and sewage as well that tends to be full of nutrients that most plants thrive on. If the waste is used to help grow non-food crops then there is much of it to utilize. just a thought.

          • Steve Hanley

            That’s an excellent thought. And absolutely true, so far as I know. In ancient times, the population of Egypt depended on the Nile overflowing its banks every spring to bring essential nutrients to the fields nearby.

            The problem is that agribusiness is committed to business as usual to maximize profits. Just as the fossil fuel companies are determined to wrest every last molecule of dino juice out of the ground to maximize “shareholder value,” so to the Monsantos of the world intend to sell all the petroleum based fertilizers they can to keep their stock valuations high.

            Therein lies the essential flaw in capitalist theory. It is, in effect, a giant Ponzi scheme that is ultimately unsustainable.

            Thank you for your comment.

      • Eco Logical

        Hey Steve, thanks for your prolific work posting great articles on clean energy, just a note to add that methanol, ethanol, and even gasoline can be synthesized by absorbing CO2 from the air and combining it with electrolyzed H2 using clean, renewable energy. Check out “GREEN FREEDOM” by LANL and the MTG (Methanol To Gasoline) process. These processes produce hydrocarbon fuels in a carbon neutral way (like trees, corn, …) but much more efficiently.

        • Steve Hanley

          Thank you for letting us know. That’s a topic I know very little about.

        • David Austin

          I don’t think the concern is so much how much carbon is created in the production of hydrocarbon fuels, but in the burning of hydrocarbon fuels, especially as it relates to power efficiency. Either way, in the end, the almighty dollar will decide the path taken.