Gasoline Fuel Cell Would Boost Electric Car Range

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Fuel Cell Powered Chevrolet Equinox

Introduction to the Problem

You, like most people, may already be familiar with the fact that electric vehicles have a relatively short driving range compared to traditional gasoline powered vehicles.

Most people do not need to drive more than 80 miles per trip, but range anxiety is a problem helping to prevent the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

People, in general, would like to have a driving range significantly more than the distance they usually drive, just in case they have to drive far, which is perfectly understandable.

This issue can be addressed, albeit with consequences, using a backup electricity generator that can either charge the electric vehicle’s batteries, directly power the vehicle’s electric motor if the battery dies, provide additional power to the motor if necessary, or all of the above.

One of the consequences of including a generator in an electric vehicle is that it will increase the vehicle’s weight, and hence degrade efficiency as well as performance. Another consequence, and the most important one, in my opinion, is that the generator is very expensive, so it increases the price of the vehicle.

However, the point is that the backup generator can extend driving range to several hundred miles. Chevrolet did this with the Volt.

Volt owners enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they can drive even farther than they could in a traditional gasoline-only vehicle, which provides a range of only a few hundred miles.

Now, back to reality: Backup generators are too expensive, and they are also too inefficient (despite being more efficient than a hybrid gasoline engine).

New Generator Could Address Range Issue Efficiently

Researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a type of generator that they say would boost the driving range of electric vehicles (with the help of some fossil fuels) and keep carbon dioxide emissions low. Some key points:

  • The generator uses solid-oxide fuel cells, which can be powered by some readily available fossil fuels, such as natural gas, diesel, and gasoline (unlike hydrogen fuel cells).
  • The key reason this could boost range is because the energy density of gasoline is very high (12,500 Wh/kg).
  • The researchers developed a new electrolyte materials and changed the cell design a bit in order to make it more compact than traditional solid-oxide fuel cells. Traditional solid-oxide fuel cells are too large for vehicles, but the researchers say this new one produces ten times more power for its size. This means that it could be ten times smaller than a traditional gasoline engine and produce just as much power, making it a much more suitable candidate for electric vehicles.
  • Another problem with traditional solid-oxide fuel cells is that they have to be heated to very high temperatures of 900 ⁰C  in order to function correctly (this is the operating temperature). The researchers say that they lowered the operating temperature by hundreds of degrees to 650 ⁰C, which is not only a cheaper and easier temperature to maintain, but cheaper materials can be used. (Higher temperature materials tend to cost more money.)

This improvement is impressive, but it still needs work. Turning it on and off with each trip would cause too much wear and tear, shortening it’s life, so the car would need to include a battery pack that it would keep charged. Also, these fuel cells still use fossil fuels — so, even though they could help to facilitate the adoption of more efficient electric vehicles, they would still rely on economically and environmentally unsustainable fossil fuels a bit.

h/t Technology Review | Photo Credit: svacher

Related Stories:

  1. SiEnergy Lowers Solid-Oxide Fuel Cell Temperature by 300-500 °C
  2. UTC Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sets Performance Record on Oakland AC Transit Hybrid Electric Bus
  3. Nanoengineered EV Batteries Zap Range Anxiety

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Nicholas Brown

Has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is:

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