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Blog: Nissan announces ethanol fuel cell car

Nissan is using an ethanol-water blend fed into an on-board reformer that produces hydrogen to power a fuel cell that supplies electricity to drive the car.
By Susanne Retka Schill | July 01, 2016

 Did you catch the news a couple of weeks ago that Nissan is working on an electric car fueled by ethanol?

That may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Nissan is developing the e-Bio-Fuel-Cell -- a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). Fuel cells are one of those futuristic technologies that, broadly speaking, is any device that produces electricity from a variety of fuels.

The common approach has been to use straight hydrogen as the fuel, which would require high-pressure hydrogen fueling infrastructure.  John Voelker, editor at High Gear Media, says three companies are introducing such vehicles this year. The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, Toyota Mirai, and Honda Clarity Fuel Cell all store hydrogen at 10,000 psi in heavily reinforced tanks in the floor and cargo areas of their vehicles. New fueling infrastructure has to be built, costing between $1 million and $2 million for each station.

Nissan’s approach is to use a blend of ethanol and water as the hydrogen source for the fuel cell. The liquid is fed into an on-board reformer that splits it into pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen is fed into the solid-oxide fuel cell, which generates electricity to power the electric vehicle, which is also equipped with a battery and the ability to store regenerated energy.  

The system could tap into the existing fuel delivery infrastructure to provide the ethanol, avoiding the cost of the high-pressure hydrogen delivery infrastructure. Voelker figures 2 percent of U.S. stations would be able to provide ethanol right now, using E85 stations as the proxy. Nissan is proposing water-ethanol blends between E45 and E100.

Nissan says the vehicle will have a driving range similar to gasoline-powered cars, a short refueling time (presumably in comparison to recharging an electric car) and an ample power supply that could even support refrigerated delivery trucks. Nissan is projecting the cars’ operating cost will be on par with today’s electric cars, which is far cheaper per mile than gasoline vehicles, Voelker notes. Expected commercialization is in 2020.