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Nissan develops e-bio fuel cells for 2020

Tech is safer, cheaper, automaker says

June 20, 2016
Hans GreimelTwitter

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Nissan Motor Co. has developed a new kind of fuel cell technology it says is safer, cheaper and more user-friendly than existing systems from rivals with the aim of commercializing it around 2020.
Nissan’s new approach: The system uses an onboard tank of ethanol instead of pressurized hydrogen.
Dubbed an e-bio fuel cell, the design combats a common hurdle to deploying traditional hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: the lack of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said repeatedly that although hydrogen fuel cells are an attractive alternative-fuel solution, the lack of fueling stations, and the expense of building them, makes the technology impractical.
Nissan’s new solution uses bio-ethanol, derived from renewable crops such as corn or sugar cane, and banks on the fact that an ethanol refueling infrastructure already largely exists.
Nissan expects to bring the technology to market in fleet vehicles by around 2020.
“By using this fuel, it can have wider application,” Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said Tuesday, June 14, while announcing the development. “We do not require a hydrogen infrastructure. That is the biggest advantage, along with better safety.”
Several advantages
E-bio fuel cells also should be less costly than traditional hydrogen systems because they don’t require the expensive carbon-fiber storage tanks for pressurized hydrogen or costly precious metals, such as platinum, as catalysts for electricity generation.
Nissan’s system shares its fundamental technology with the existing systems in such vehicles as the Toyota Mirai or Honda Clarity fuel cell sedans.
Like those vehicles, Nissan’s system requires hydrogen to be fed through a fuel stack to generate electricity. And similarly, Nissan’s technology uses that electricity to power an electric motor that drives the car. Excess electricity also is stored in an onboard battery.
The biggest difference is that Nissan’s new system generates its hydrogen inside the car. It does so through an additional step handled by a component called a reformer.
The reformer transforms ethanol in the fuel tank into hydrogen, which is then fed into in the fuel stack. In the more traditional hydrogen fuel cell cars, there is no reformer. The car’s fuel tank carries pressurized hydrogen pumped directly from a fueling station.
Nissan says its system has several advantages, despite the extra step.
First, ethanol fuel is more widely available than hydrogen, making it easier to introduce the drivetrain technology. It also does not require a special hydrogen fueling station. Indeed, countries such as Brazil already widely use ethanol fuel.
Second, ethanol is safer to use than hydrogen because it is not as combustible.
Additionally, Nissan’s system operates at a much higher temperature. That means it does not need pricey precious metals to operate as catalysts. Low-priced metals will do. Costs are further reduced because the fuel tank is not a high-tech carbon-fiber pressurized capsule, Nissan says.
Finally, the fuel need not be pure ethanol. It could be a mix of up to 55 percent water, which will further bring down vehicle operating cost.
Heat swings
On the flip side, Nissan said it still needs to improve the system’s heat management because swings from hot to cold extremes put pressure on durability. And because it works best at high temperatures, driving response lags until the system heats up.
There is also a difference in emissions, compared with traditional fuel cells. Fuel cells are zero emissions — they emit just water vapor and heat. Nissan’s e-bio system emits water vapor, heat and carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the onboard reformation of ethanol into hydrogen.
Despite developing the new technology, Nissan said it hasn’t given up on traditional hydrogen fuel cell systems. It plans to continue developing that technology in parallel with its partners Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co.
You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com — Follow Hans on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/hansgreimel

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