Nissan announced today what could be a major breakthrough in the reduction of dependence on fossil fuels, but first you have to figure out what exactly they’re on about. The announcement is the development of a “Solid Oxide Fuel-Cell (SOFC)-powered system that runs on bio-ethanol electric power”. Now what does that mean? Basically it’s a fuel cell system that runs on ethanol instead of compressed or liquid hydrogen.
Two of the main downsides of the hydrogen fuel cell are the lack of refueling network (and complexity of high pressure fueling) and the massive energy requirements to separate hydrogen for the cell (usually from electrolysis). The SOFC can run on solid fuels, either light fuels like methane or propane, or in the case of the Nissan cell, gasoline, diesel, or their desired bio-ethanol from sugarcane. The SOFC system works by using a reformer to separate the hydrogen from the carbon in the ethanol before running the it through the cell to create electricity. It even uses the exhaust heat of the reaction in the cell to power the reformer. The electricity is then stored in a battery for use in powering the electric motor that drives the car.
The use of solid fuels helps in a number of ways, the most important being that cars can be refueled using conventional stations, and in the conventional manner. Nissan suggests a 600 km range, after which you drive to a gas station with bio-ethanol, fill up, and keep going. The efficiency of a fuel cell generating electricity to drive the car is much more efficient than burning the fuel and Nissan claims a running cost equivalent to that of an EV. While the cell still needs hydrocarbon fuel, and does still emit CO2, the system efficiency is higher than 60 percent. This means that far less fuel is used. Nissan wants sugarcane based bio-ethanol because the fuel is largely carbon neutral, via the growing of the sugarcane used to make it, but it’s possible the system could run on regular old gasoline as well. It would still be vastly more efficient than an internal combustion engine
Nissan doesn’t have an estimate of when the technology could hit market, but an electric car with a regular car range is a very interesting possibility.
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