Fuel Cell Powered Supercar, Or Just A Supercar With Fuel Cell Range Extender?

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First things first: This is not a methanol fuel cell powered car. This is a battery electric vehicle with a methanol fuel cell range extender.

The hype about this car is all on the fuel cell, but the fact is, the fuel cell has an output of only 5 kW, which will bring the car to a top speed of 20 mph. The so-called direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) converts methanol into electricity, oxygen, heat, carbon dioxide, and water in an electrochemical process that enables it to charge the car’s battery while driving or standing still, just like any generator would.

Now, the neat thing about using a methanol fuel cell is that you don’t need the complicated and expensive high pressure hydrogen hardware, but the down side is that the process of generating electricity with methanol creates carbon dioxide, and a lot of heat.

But let’s not jump to conclusions, let’s think this over a bit more.

Supercar with methanol fuel cells

This is the perfect headline. It sounds so futuristic. But is it? In a partnership between SerEnergy and Gumpert Aiways Automobile, this very cool looking car has seen the light of day. It was presented at the Beijing Motor Show on the 25th of April.

Image credit: Gumpert Aiways

Some very good articles about the car can be found on motor1.com, electrive.net, and motor-talk.de. The car is also described at the SerEnergy and Gumpert Aiways Automobile websites. And all the tech stuff is truly mouth-watering, but I can’t help thinking this is an odd concept in some ways.

Why a supercar?

In 2016, I attended a cleantech exhibition with my Nissan Leaf and a couple of electric bikes, and next to me this Nissan e-NV200 was parked. It was emitting a strange hissing noise. Turns out it was fitted with a methanol fuel cell at work, supposedly from the same Danish company SerEnergy now partnering with the Chinese/German Gumpert Aiways Automobile.

Look closely — there is a box underneath housing fuel cell and methanol tank

The range of the e-NV200 with its standard 24 kWh battery would in this case be boosted from 100 to about 600 miles with the help of this fuel cell that has a continuous electric output of 5-7 kW charging the battery while driving or standing still. The system was mounted in a box under the car, and no changes were made to the original chassis apart from some wiring to allow continuous charging.

This all makes sense for a van going around town all day with the power consumption of the electric motor seldom surpassing 10 kW (in my experience the e-NV200 can travel at 40 mph at 10 kW power, and 70 mph at 20 kW power).

You probably never heard of the e-NV200 methanol fuel cell project before right? But we are certainly hearing about the RG Nathalie supercar, being methanol fuel cell powered and all. Well, fast cars just get all the attention. Remember what Elon Musk said at the Model 3 launch? “At Tesla, we don’t make slow cars.” From a marketing point of view: priceless.

So, is the RG Nathalie about the car or about the fuel cell? Your guess is as good as mine.

Why methanol fuel cells?

Presenting a car like the RG Nathalie is a somewhat awkward way of presenting two separate technologies. However, it works for me, if I look at the tech separately.

Image credit: motor1.com

The cars itself is absolutely gorgeous. Finally an electric sports car with design elements from the good old days of boxy and tiny kick-ass GT’s like Audi Quattro, Nissan Skyline/GTR, Subaru Impreza, Dodge Charger, and Toyota Supra. I mean, look at it. Whats not to like? It is not even trying to be a Rimac Concept 1/2, NIO EP9, or Tesla Roadster 2.

I love it. And as a pure BEV with its 70 kWh battery, 420 HP and 0 – 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, it’s a done deal.

So, why the range extender? The 400 miles range on the battery alone would be just fine, but here they claim to double that with the methanol fuel cell. But the fuel cell only outputs 5 kW in this case, which would give you a top speed of 20 mph, or put another way: a charge time of 14 hours from empty to full. The battery is capable of 350 kW charge rate. So why bother?

I think it’s simply a clever way to give the methanol fuel cell some well deserved attention. Because the very idea of a compact fuel cell that can charge a battery off grid by simply adding a liquid fuel is so neat. It is a very versatile system. It certainly beats the idea of using an ICE-generator. Of course the fuel should be sustainably produced and derived from non-fossil carbon sources and renewable energy, but still, the fact that NOx, SOx, particulates, and noise are absent would make it alright to use methanol derived from natural gas if you were in a tight spot. And from a chemical point of view, methanol (one toxic compound) is so much simpler and safer than gasoline (hundreds of toxic compounds).

Will fuel cells survive the crashing battery prices?

To be honest, I think it’s too late, in cars anyway. With battery prices dropping so fast as they are now, even a neat little fuel cell setup like this will have to get very cheap very soon to have a chance in future mainstream cars. Range anxiety? Think 50-75 kWh (200-300 miles range) in entry-level cars and 100-200 kWh (400-800 miles range) in premium cars, and even refueling flammable methanol in 3 minutes will seem old school.

Imagine if the BMW i3 had come to market with this technology instead of the gasoline powered range extender. I would have loved knowing my car could quietly recharge at a reasonable rate whenever I was parked somewhere without access to a public charger. That little insecurity I have experienced in the years of driving with 20-24 kWh batteries under the seats would have been non-existent with a setup like this.

Regardless of the confusion of this particular fuel cell setup in this supercar, we need to see more of this, even if there is only one winner in the end, which in my opinion is the pure battery electric vehicle. If this car gets to market without a fuel cell, I’ll not hold it against it. Just bring it on!

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 239 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen