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Nissan’s New Bio-Ethanol Fuel Cell Technology

Nissan Fuel CellIt’s the usual problem with new sustainable fuels*.  On the one hand, the inventors have come up with a great new technology that’s renewable but still produces lots of lovely energy that we can use to get our cars whizzing around the road.  What’s more, it would be a piece of cake to install this in the typical production car (well, in some cases, anyway!).  On the other hand, using this technique requires a fair bit of infrastructure to be in place.  You need to have bowsers that pump out the biodiesel or the ethanol, you need charging points for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (and you thought finding a charging point for your smartphone was bad enough), and you need hydrogen refuelling stations for fuel cells.  It’s a real Catch-22 situation: the powers would be would install more of the infrastructure if there was more demand for these sustainable energy sources created by people like you and me buying vehicles than need the charging stations, etc.  However, I, for one, am not going to buy a vehicle, no matter how eco-friendly it is, if I can’t give it the juice it needs to get moving because the infrastructure is lacking.

Things are slowly changing in the electric car and plug-in hybrid department.  We’ve already got an electrical grid that works pretty well most of the time and at least a chunk of the power is generated from renewables.  Charging stations are popping up all over the show, which makes buying a hybrid or electric vehicle more attractive.  We’ve also got a fairly good history of using ethanol blends in our fuel thanks to our sugarcane industry, so it won’t take that much to increase the amount of ethanol or biodiesel we use.

The renewable clean technology that’s been a bit slower to get off the ground has been hydrogen fuel cell technology.  This is super-clean burning, producing only water vapour as “exhaust” but powering our cars on hydrogen has some drawbacks.  Putting in the fuel cell into production cars at the factory is easy.  Fitting in a hydrogen tank is a bit harder, as these things have to be large and as tough as gnarly old ironbark tree or tougher.  Then you’ve got the infrastructure problems, as hydrogen sources can’t be pumped from your regular bowser, as it’s a gas, not a liquid.

However, just last week, Nissan  announced a possible way to sidestep the infrastructure problem.  They’re in the process of researching and developing a new sort of fuel cell: one that uses hydrogen derived from bio-ethanol within the fuel cell itself to generate electricity to power a car.  This is known as a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell or what Nissan has called its “e-Bio Fuel Cell”. This technology looks set to be released in countries where they already have a good source of ethanol handy as a byproduct of sugar or corn-growing industries.  In other words, countries like Australia!

The process works more or less like this: first, the ethanol or ethanol and water mix gets pumped from a regular bowser into a regular fuel tank.  The ethanol goes through the reformer part of the system to become H2 (chemically, ethanol is CH3CH2OH, so there’s lots of handy hydrogen). At the same time, air comes in through the intakes, and the hydrogen and oxygen head for the fuel cell stack.  This generates electrical energy, which gets stored in the battery, which, in turn, powers the electric motor.

The aim is to have a vehicle that’s a nice, quiet electric car with no or very low emissions and diddly-squat of a carbon footprint (although the official Nissan press release  didn’t say what happens to the excess carbon and oxygen left over after converting the ethanol). With this sort of fuel cell, it’s likely that Nissan will have a 100% electric vehicle that has better range than what’s currently possible with the typical EV, such as Nissan’s very own LEAF .  On top of this, there’s no need for new infrastructure to supply the fuel and it won’t take ages to fill up, unlike the situation with plug-in hybrids and EVs today, which take a fair bit of time to charge, so you have to plan your plug-in time to fit your schedule.

It sounds like a real win-win situation: a low-emissions vehicle that uses sustainable fuel, is quiet, has decent range and is fairly quick to fuel up.  It’s not sure at this stage when Nissan will be putting these fuel cells into its vehicles, but it shouldn’t be too far away, so watch this space!

 

*   This was written before I spotted my fellow Private Fleet blogger’s post on the sustainable fuel issue. Great minds think alike! 

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