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Children of the corn: Nissan develops world-first ethanol automotive fuel cell

Most fuel cells run on compressed hydrogen, but Nissan's unit relies on bioethanol, a gasoline alternative that can be sourced from plants.

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (June 14, 2016) – Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. announced today that it is currently researching and developing a Solid Oxide Fuel-Cell (SOFC)-powered system that runs on bio-ethanol electric power. The new system –¬ a world first for automotive use – features an e-Bio Fuel-Cell with an SOFC power generator. SOFC is a fuel cell utilizing the reaction of multiple fuels, including ethanol and natural gas, with oxygen to produce electricity with high efficiency.

Right now, if you want a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle and you don't live in a certain slice of California, you're basically boned. Hydrogen has nowhere near the supporting infrastructure that gas or even electricity have, and it's going to take a while for that to happen -- fuel cell cars aren't cheap, and neither is creating storage tanks for highly flammable gases. Nissan thinks it has a way around that problem.

Fuel-cell vehicles take a fuel (in most cases, compressed hydrogen gas) and convert it to electricity, which powers the car. Nissan's first-of-its-kind fuel cell replaces that hydrogen gas with ethanol. A reformer pulls hydrogen from the ethanol and combines it with atmospheric oxygen (aka outside air) to create electricity.

The system, which is given the clunky name of e-Bio Fuel Cell, hopes to provide gas-like range to fuel cell vehicles. There's also the added benefit of being carbon neutral, as the carbon dioxide emitted by a bioethanol-powered fuel cell vehicle is offset by the carbon dioxide required of the sugarcane grown to create the ethanol (though of course it still needs natural resources like land and water).

The company believes costs will stay low because the ethanol can be blended with water, and the storage efforts required for ethanol are markedly lower than what's required to contain pressurized hydrogen gas. Nissan hopes to roll this technology out in fleet vehicles around 2020, according to Automotive News.

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