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.
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