Hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which generate their own electricity internally while emitting zero emissions, have long been considered by many to be the ultimate automobile powerplants.
They offer all the advantages of battery electric vehicles without their primary drawbacks of limited range, extended recharge times and lack of charging infrastructure.
While a few fuel cell vehicles are now on the market, their widespread introduction has been hampered by drawbacks of their own, including very high costs, in part due to the use of precious metals in their construction, and the lack of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
There is also the issue that most hydrogen now is produced from natural gas so it’s not a replacement for fossil fuels. And, it must be stored and dispensed at very high pressures, like propane or natural gas.
Solid Oxide Fuel Cell
Nissan has just announced development of a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC)-powered system that runs on ethanol, which could effectively overcome the major problems of both battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles.
Ethanol, already a component of gasoline, can be dispensed as a liquid requiring no major changes in infrastructure or consumer practice. According to the company, the power efficiency of the SOFC system would be sufficient to provide cruising ranges similar to gasoline-powered cars (more than 600km). And fill-ups would be equally quick.
In addition, bio-ethanol can be produced from crops such as corn and sugar cane – an important consideration in the system’s green cred. Unlike hydrogen-only fuel cell cells, which emit only water, the SOFC power generator also produces CO2.
But, Nissan says, with bio-ethanol as the fuel, CO2 emissions are neutralized by the growing process of the crop from which the bio-fuel is made, resulting in a “Carbon-Neutral Cycle,” with “nearly no CO2 increase whatsoever.”
In fact, the electrochemical production of electricity within the SOFC does make use of hydrogen, but it is generated on-board using a “reformer” which reacts the ethanol fuel with oxygen. That’s where the CO2 comes from.
Running costs will be remarkably low, according to Nissan – on par with today’s EVs, ultimately benefitting the public as well as businesses. The e-Bio Fuel-Cell is an ideal fit for wider customer needs because of the short refueling time and ample power supply, the company says. It also suggests that the ethanol could be heavily diluted with water and still work as a fuel for the SOFC.
In the future, the e-Bio Fuel-Cell will become even more user-friendly, Nissan says. Ethanol-blended water is easier and safer to handle than most other fuels, the company notes, adding that, “As this will remove limits on creating a totally new infrastructure, it has great potential for market growth.”
While Nissan did not announce productions plans for SOFC-powered vehicles, one source suggests they could be on the market by 2020.