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Nissan was the first to take a step forward, announcing a few years ago the development of a system called SOFC (Solid Oxide Fuel Cell).
Last year, Volkswagen announced a project in partnership with Unicamp (State University of Campinas) in the same direction: to create a fuel cell system using ethanol as the basis for moving electric vehicles, so that the set is viable for production. and commercialization on an industrial scale.
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Functioning and benefits of SOFC
Toyota Mirai, the first production car powered by fuel cell electricity
To understand how the solid oxide fuel cell works, Mobiauto spoke with Gustavo Doubek, a professor at Unicamp’s School of Chemical Engineering and one of those responsible for carrying out the project together with VW. He explained to us how it works and the advantages of the technology.
“We are still in the initial stage of development. Therefore, it is still too early to talk about results and data. [O grande desafio é] trying to transfer the theoretical concepts to a system that is viable for the productive sector, that can be industrially produced on a large scale at an affordable cost”, says the professor.
The SOFC consists of a chain in which the fuel present in the cell undergoes a reactive process that results in electrical energy. The most common type, already present in production cars like the Toyota Mirai, uses hydrogen.
For countries like Brazil, the idea of having a cell with ethanol is a solution adapted to take advantage of a fuel that is already widespread in our market. It would also take advantage of the supply structure already spread throughout the country, being less costly for the government and companies, and less impacting for consumers.
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The partnership agreement signed between VW and Unicamp
After all, it would be enough to fill the cell with ethanol in the same way that you do with the tank of a current combustion car. In addition, we would dispense with investing in local production or importing batteries, as a SOFC-powered electric car does not need large battery banks to run: its energy will come from ethanol converted into electricity.
Such a conversion can take place in two ways, explains Doubek: the direct reaction of ethanol with water or the transformation of ethanol into hydrogen and then into electricity. “We opted for the second path, because it increases the energy conversion capacity,” he says. In other words, by turning ethanol into hydrogen before electricity, it is possible to generate more electricity with the same fuel.
The method is relatively simple: ethanol goes from the fuel cell to a reformer, along with water. There, the elements undergo chemical reactions that generate hydrogen, water, CO (carbon monoxide) and CO² (carbon dioxide). The hydrogen is then converted into electricity, while the rest of the elements are expelled.
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Toyota fuel cell platform on vehicle floor
The secret to making ethanol “yield twice as much” and producing it on a large scale
“The biggest challenge is to optimize the relationship to generate more power and the amount of electricity generated”, adds Gustavo Doubek.
This is where a solution that Volkswagen and Nissan will try to implement in their potential ethanol-powered electric cars in Brazil comes into play. As we said, the chemical reaction takes place in a reformer, through a process called exothermic (reactions or changes in physical state that release heat).
Fuel cells are often combined with external reformers. Each reformer, therefore, needs to have a capacity commensurate with the size of the cell. What the Unicamp researchers intend to do is create cells equipped with a microreformer within themselves. With that, they will try to kill two birds with one stone.
First, they will have a standardized and modular device, able to be used by any type of model. Instead of having cells and reformers of different volumes and capacities for each type of vehicle, it will be enough to include one or more cells of the same type depending on the model: just one for a compact hatch, two for a sedan or medium SUV and three for a Larger pickup truck, for example.
“The reformer and the cell would always be the same, which would give a very important gain in terms of scales and costs”, explains the professor.
At the same time, an internal micro-reformer allows the heat dissipated in the reaction to be reused to generate more energy, in a logic similar to the reuse of kinetic energy from braking used to recharge electric car batteries with external charging.
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Nissan banner explains how SOFC works with the reformer built into the fuel cell
“We will only have real efficiency figures in two or three years”, emphasizes Doubek. It is within this period that the researchers expect to have the project approved and prototypes on a pilot scale for practical assessment of the studies. “[Esses protótipos nos] They will provide greater security for the construction and operation of the fuel cell”, he adds.
What the engineer was already able to say is that it should be possible to double the energy use of ethanol in relation to what the fuel yields today in a flex-fuel car. “A common combustion engine today has between 25% and 30% efficiency. [térmica]. With this internal reformer cell, it is possible to exceed 50%”, he calculates.
That is, while a conventional heat engine wastes more than 70% of the energy generated by ethanol during the combustion and traction process, a SOFC electric vehicle with an internal microreformer would be able to use more than half of that same energy, practically doubling the thermal efficiency.
In practice, it is as if an electric compact powered by a fuel cell was capable of doing 25 km/l in the city by converting ethanol into electricity, while a current equivalent model with a flex engine achieves 12 or 13 km/l of autonomy.
“Of course, to talk about absolute numbers or percentages, everything will depend on the power demanded. In a combustion engine, the more you demand from an engine or extract power, the greater the fuel consumption. In an electric car, the logic is the same”, completes the specialist.
Another point still to be investigated, according to the researcher, is whether it will be possible to take advantage of the thermal energy dissipated by the car’s radiator (which will still exist, being responsible for cooling the components of the electric motorization), even if partially, in order to heat the reformer itself and further optimize the use of energy.
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Ethanol-powered electrics: the easy way out?
About Professor Gustavo Doubek
Gustavo Doubek says that his department at Unicamp decided to accept the partnership with VW, believing that the fuel cell could be a viable way to popularize the electric car in Brazil.
“We don’t have a great deal of expertise to produce lithium-ion batteries. Countries like the United States and China are already very strong in this area. Production is very expensive and is only justified with high volume. We would hardly be able to compete and we would be dependent on imports”, he comments.
“At the same time, Brazil is an exporting hub of biofuels such as ethanol. Which, in general, is a very clean fuel. There is no such thing as 100% clean fuel, but [o etanol] come close to it. There is a large volume of C0² capture in the sugarcane plantation, leaving the balance at practically zero”, he comments.
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Virtual mockup of the future Biofuels R&D Center being created by VW
The engineer agrees that factors such as the fuel used by the vehicles that participate in the process of planting, harvesting and distributing sugarcane and ethanol, as well as the origin of the electrical energy used in the entire ethanol production process, must be taken into account. But he also believes in clean solutions for every step of the chain.
“SOFC has a much simpler path [de aplicação] in trucks and agricultural machinery, further improving emission efficiency. If we manage to make the entire chain of vehicles used in the sugarcane sector be powered by electricity from ethanol, we will have an even more efficient process”, he reasons.
The professor adds: “Brazil has a privileged situation, with a very high presence of sunlight in places that do not require deforestation and favorable soil. The potential is huge. These are issues that make sense here and not in Europe, for example, which has a totally different climate”.
“There is no single solution for electrification. We have a very important opportunity in this energy transition, including becoming a hub for exporting fuel and technology to places like India or Africa. But we need to invest and develop qualified suppliers here right now”, he concludes.
On the VW side, the German manufacturer will inaugurate in September this year a Research & Development Center in São Bernardo do Campo (SP) dedicated to research into electrified motorization solutions using biofuels such as ethanol.
Images: Publicity, Shutterstock and Personal Collection/LinkedIn
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