Nissan Announces New Ethanol-Based Fuel Cell Vehicle Technology

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Japanese automaker Nissan announced earlier this month plans to introduce new ethanol-based fuel cell technologies, or e-bio fuel cells, in some of their vehicles by the year 2020.

Unlike existing fuel cell vehicles from the likes of Toyota and Honda, Nissan’s new technology uses ethanol, an alcohol derived from plants like corn and sugarcane, instead of pressurized hydrogen to power an internal electric car battery.

Fuel cell systems provide an alternative to gasoline, whereby hydrogen and oxygen react in the fuel cell to produce electricity that powers the vehicle. But whereas Toyota and Honda’s fuel cells require consumers to periodically recharge at specially-made hydrogen fueling stations, which are not yet readily available throughout many parts of Japan or the United States, Nissan’s new technology will be the first of its kind to generate hydrogen within the car.

Ethanol is already commonly used as an additive to traditional gasoline in the United States and fully powers many vehicles in countries such as Brazil. Existing fueling infrastructure could therefore be used to service Nissan’s fuel cell vehicles.

“The cost and energy required to produce hydrogen can be very high, and it also requires significant investment in [fueling and storing] infrastructure,” Nissan Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said at a press conference. “Compared with that, ethanol is very easy to procure, it is safer to store and lower cost. These are its merits.”

The Tokyo-based company said it hopes to have a fleet of vehicles equipped with e-bio fuel cells in time for the city’s hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The technology should allow cars to drive up to 800km, or nearly 500 miles, between fueling.

In addition to regular consumer cars, Nissan hopes to target larger vehicles for electric conversion such as delivery vans or commercial trucks, which currently utilize around 53.9 billion gallons of gasoline fuel every year.

The ethanol fuel cell system would still produce some carbon dioxide emissions, though Nissan argues that the system is entirely “carbon neutral,” as emissions would be absorbed by the very crops used to create ethanol in the first place.

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