- New electric car concept uses bio-methanol to achieve a 500-mile range
- Danish consortium of companies combine battery and fuel cell power to improve range
- Bio-methanol fuel would cut tailpipe emissions by at least one third say the project's developers
- Demonstration model likely to be ready in 2013
Despite their green credentials, electric cars still come up short against their petrol-powered cousins when it comes to range -- how far they go before the battery needs recharging.
But a new "range-extended" electric vehicle (EV) equipped with the latest fuel cell technology is promising to close the gap going 500 miles (800 kilometers) without refueling, say its developers.
Bringing together the expertise of three Danish companies, the Modular Energy Carrier concept (MECc) utilizes bio-methanol -- a biofuel which can be harvested from a range of sources including natural gas -- to improve the competitiveness of EVs.
"Bio-methanol is a very good way to power cars because it has a very good CO2 profile, much better than diesel or gasoline," says Mogens Lokke, CEO of ECOmove, designers of the innovative "QBEAK" car which will carry the technology.
"In combination with the way we built the car which is really lightweight (425 kilograms) we can get the 500-mile range."
This is considerably more than Nissan's battery-powered Leaf which maxes out at 138 miles (222 kilometers) and even the Chevrolet Volt -- a battery/gasoline "range-extended" EV -- which has a range of 375 miles (603 kilometers) according to the U.S. automaker.
ECOmove's award-winning QBEAK incorporates patented in-wheel electric motors which deliver a top speed of 75mph (120kph), but it's the novel chassis design which is propelling the project forward.
"Instead of putting in a fixed battery, we have built in (six) modules that can be fitted inside the chassis. We can use battery power in the modules or any other kind of energy source," Lokke said.
The fuel cell converts a bio-methanol/water mix into electricity charging the battery, according to ECOmove, while waste heat from this process generates power for the car's heating and cooling system.
Bio-methanol is a cheap and abundant fuel with a short carbon chain, says Mads Friis Jensen from Serenergy, designers of the fuel cell.
"We are using bio-methanol, which is chemically identical to methanol, because you can manufacture it from any source, including natural gas, biomass and timber waste," Jensen said.
He says production of the biofuel is increasing in Europe, pointing to Dutch manufacturer BioMCN, who have been reforming glycerine (a residue of biodiesel production) into bio-methanol commercially since 2010.
Compared to gasoline, bio-methanol production cuts CO2 emissions by more than 70% on a well to wheel basis BioMCN says.
Jensen estimates emission reductions from the QBEAK's tailpipe will be around one third of those from traditional combustion engines.
Iceland-based Carbon Recycling International are another company using industrial emissions as a feedstock for renewable fuels production. Their George Olah Plant -- named after the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and author of "Beyond Gas and Oil: The Methanol Economy" -- started production of bio-methanol at the end of last year.
Fuel plants like these are finding a good use for an industrial by-product and may be feasible for some transport applications says Adrian Higson, head of biorefining at the UK's National Non-Food Crop Center.
"It's always the case that when you look at any fuel that's produced that you've got to look at the efficiency of the engine it's used in. In itself, methanol is not a great fuel because of the energy content and toxicity," Higson said.
"But the efficiency of a fuel cell would make bio-methanol interesting as a fuel as opposed to it being interesting for the standard fleet," he added.
According to the U.S. Department for Energy (DOE), direct methanol fuel cells are unhindered by the storage problems associated with some other "clean" fuels (like hydrogen) because methanol is a liquid and has a higher density.
This means it's easier to transport and supply to the public through the current refueling infrastructure, say the DOE.
It's a fact which hasn't escaped the attention of ECOmove, Serenergy and MECc project managers, Insero E-Mobility who estimate reconfiguring a gas station to dispense bio-methanol would cost around $12,000-$18,000.
The project was recently awarded funding from the Danish government's Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Program and ECOmove hope to launch a battery-powered QBEAK with a range of 186 miles (300 kilometers) later this year.
A battery/fuel cell demonstration model is expected to arrive sometime in 2013.