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Nissan’s fuel-cell evolution hits the road

Going SOFC: Nissan’s latest self-contained fuel-cell setup pioneers both inexpensive materials and more flexible fuel possibilities, but now it is in an experimental vehicle.

New fuel-cell powertrain drives Nissan e-Bio Fuel-Cell Prototype into the future


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5 Aug 2016

NISSAN has slotted the game-changing solid oxide fuel-cell drivetrain that it unveiled in June into an e-NV200 van, creating a functioning prototype that can cover more than 600 carbon-neutral kilometres on a single 30-litre tank of ethanol.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but the Japanese car-maker’s clever evolution of the zero emissions fuel-cell system produces the hydrogen necessary to power a fuel-cell with an on-board reformer, rather than filling up with the gas after production in separate large-scale industrial processes.

At its core the e-Bio Fuel-Cell Prototype uses a special fuel-cell that has been developed using solid oxide (SOFC) electrolyte in place of expensive noble metals and converts gaseous hydrogen into electricity to charge a 24kW battery, which powers an electric drive motor.

Like other fuel-cell vehicles, the Nissan e-Bio prototype’s fuel-cell produces only water vapour as a by-product of electricity generation, but its in-house reformer can make hydrogen from a number of different base fuels including natural gas and a water-ethanol blend.

More conventional fuels pose fewer infrastructure challenges compared with hydrogen and would offer greater flexibility and feasibility to a production version, if Nissan was to produce a showroom model of the e-Bio.

A small quantity of carbon dioxide is produced as part of the reformation process, but the on-board production is more environmentally friendly than many of the industrial processes currently in place.

Furthermore, the carbon emissions can be offset with the use of bio-fuels such as e-Bio ethanol, which is produced from crops including corn and sugarcane and are renewable.

Nissan president and CEO Carlos Ghosn said the prototype heralded a brighter future for green transport and that more choices for customers strengthens the alternative energy cause.

“The e-Bio Fuel-Cell offers eco-friendly transportation and creates opportunities for regional energy production…all the while supporting the existing infrastructure,” he said.

“In the future, the e-Bio Fuel-Cell will become even more user-friendly.

Ethanol-blended water is easier and safer to handle than most other fuels.

Without the need to create new infrastructure, it has great potential to drive market growth.”

Nissan revealed the functioning self-contained fuel-cell and reformer system on a test rig in June, but its application to a vehicle is evidence that production cars may one day adopt the zero-emissions and multi-fuel drivetrain.

Topping up with liquid fuel is faster and more convenient than electrical charging, and is an easier fuel to store and refill compared with high-pressure hydrogen, however, Nissan is not backing one horse and says electrical charging infrastructure is also a main focus.

While hydrogen and other alternative vehicle fuel infrastructure is some time away, the car-maker says that EV charging is at a “tipping point” in the United Kingdom, and that the number of public charge points will soon overtake fossil fuel filling stations.

According to a new study by Nissan, by mid-2020 there will be more public charge locations than petrol stations in the UK.

The report looks at data that shows a decline of fossil fuel refuelling stations from 37,539 in 1970 to just 8472 in 2015, and forecasts the trend to continue to a figure of fewer than 7870 by August 2020.

In contrast, the report predicts the number of electric charge points to pass 7900 by the same time, although that milestone could arrive sooner if electric vehicle popularity continues in an exponential but hard-to-map trajectory, it says.

The rise of electric infrastructure is being driven partly by Nissan’s Leaf small electric hatchback, which is the world’s highest volume selling zero-emission vehicle.

While the the UK experiences an EV boom with more than 115 electric vehicles registered every day in the first quarter of 2016, Australia continues to lag behind the rest of the developed world in the adoption of alternative vehicle energy.

To date, the Australian government offers no incentives to entice drivers away from their dependence on oil and into low or zero-emissions transport.

With numerous benefits offered to drivers of more environmentally considerate vehicles, a UK joint government and automotive industry campaign, Go Ultra Low, says electricity could become the favourite new form of propulsion by 2027.

For comparison, by mid-2015, Nissan had found more than 10,000 UK homes for the Leaf, while Down Under, just 635 have been sold since the model’s introduction in 2011.

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