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Fuel Sell: Fill 'er Up With Room-Temp Hydrogen - Technologue

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 3/13/2015 Frank Markus
Fuel Sell: Fill 'er Up With Room-Temp Hydrogen - Technologue

At first I was repulsed by the jowly, unsettling appearance of Toyota's Mirai fuel-cell car (pictured below), and then I wondered, is that the desired effect? Was it strategically designed to limit the demand for a wildly unprofitable vehicle packing an untenable, ill-advised technology: the compressed-hydrogen fuel cell? The powertrain looks attractive on paper -- emissions-free electric motoring with gas-like range and refueling convenience. But I've yet to learn of a breakthrough that promises to reduce the expense, energy, and challenge of producing, transporting, storing, and dispensing hydrogen, so I view the Mirai's fuel system and bodywork with equal revulsion.

I recently learned of a new liquid fuel-cell fuel that can be transported, stored, and dispensed using our existing infrastructure. One that's naturally occurring (certain ants produce it) and boasts low flammability and low enough toxicity to be approved as a food additive in low concentrations. It's formic acid, a widely produced and inexpensive chemical expressed as HCOOH. The hydrogen needed by the fuel cell can be separated onboard using a catalytic reaction that's vastly simpler than the ones used to crack hydrogen from gasoline onboard the 1999 and 2000 Jeep Commander concepts.

Illustration by Samuel A. Minick

2016 Toyota Mirai© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Toyota Mirai

A catalyst heated to 340-375 degrees F (by burning some formic acid) and using less noble metals than in your current catalytic converter breaks the formic acid into hydrogen, CO2, and trace CO. Carbon monoxide is toxic to proton-exchange-mem­brane fuel cells, so another catalyst converts the CO to CO2, and the H2 powers the fuel cell. (A carbon adsorber that would prevent CO2 release is in R&D.) Patent-holder Neah Power has also patented a fuel cell that runs directly on liquid formic acid but says using the reformer to make H2 for use in conventional fuel cells (or engines) is more efficient.

A new liquid fuel-cell fuel can be transported, stored, and dispensed using our existing infrastructure.

OK, so this isn't carbon-free driving, but formic acid can be produced via catalytic partial oxidation of wet biomass or catalytic hydrogenation of CO2, making it carbon-neutral. Preliminary studies suggest that adding a formic-acid reformer to boost an existing Nissan Leaf's range by 200 miles would require a 16-gallon tank. That's 12.5 mpg while running on the reformer, which sounds bad until you note that the fuel's energy density is between a quarter and a fifth that of gasoline and that its CO2 emissions equate to a gas car achieving 24.8 mpg. Neah expects onboard waste heat to reduce demand for the burner, boosting efficiency of an automotive system.

Related Story: Top Fuel-Sipping Cars

2016 Toyota Mirai© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Toyota Mirai

Plenty of hurdles remain. Pure formic acid freezes at 42 degrees F, so additives are needed to drop that to at least the -4 degrees that Honda's fuel cell functions at. (Most development work to date has employed 85-94 percent formic acid.) The hydrogen reformer may need 5-10 minutes to warm up from a cold start, so a hybrid battery sized to run the car during that time is needed. And mass will be an issue, as formic acid is 73 percent denser by volume than gasoline.

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But relative to today's compressed hydrogen fuel cells, Neah president and CEO Chris D'Couto says his system should be smaller, far easier to package, and less expensive than a 5,000-psi hydrogen tank of equivalent range and its related plumbing. He says preliminary talks are underway with automakers, but his company's immediate focus is on developing a mini drone aircraft application just announced with Silent Falcon UAS Technologies. I'm willing to bet Neah's formic fuel-cell technology will land in a viable car faster than a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure will materialize.

Related Link: See More Fuel Economy News

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