Today the Ascend Energy team in the Sacramento area in collaboration with fuel cell manufacturer Atrex Energy released the results of their joint project to demonstrate the benefits of using an oxygen-based ceramic fuel cell as part of a hybrid electric vehicle to save money, reduce fuel use, and eliminate air pollution. With funding from the California Energy Commission Energy Innovations Small Grants Program, the companies undertook the demonstration to dispel many of the myths about the use of this type of fuel cell in a vehicle. Almost all attention has been directed to using hydrogen fuel cells in vehicles. Ceramic fuel cells in contrast do not require hydrogen, and can operate on conventional CNG or propane, a significant advantage in cost and simplicity. But ceramic fuel cells are thought to be too fragile to use this way. After putting the vehicle through its paces multiple times on a rugged off-road vehicle course, this myth was shattered. The fuel cell showed no damage, primarily because the unique Atrex fuel cell design is based on inherently strong tubes rather than thin sheets of ceramics.
The demonstration also showed the vehicle could be the most economical form of a fuel cell hybrid in terms of fuel cost. A conventional vehicle with a gasoline engine would use $9 of fuel to go 100 miles. A hybrid electric-type vehicle would require $7.50 worth of fuel. A hydrogen fuel cell car at today's prices of hydrogen would use $20 of fuel for the same trip. An equivalent ceramic fuel cell vehicle would use only $6 worth of fuel.
Finally, the demonstration vehicle when tested by an independent lab had no detectable NOx or SOx emissions, the same as for a hydrogen car.
“The project clearly provided a proof of concept that a ceramic fuel cell, integrated into an electric vehicle would be beneficial to the public," said Ken Pearson, President of Ascend Energy Systems. “Using CNG, the SOFC more than tripled the run time of the electric vehicle and did so with 100 percent reliability.”
"This could be a viable supplement to a Hydrogen Highway to get the benefits of fuel cell vehicles", added Cary Bullock, CEO of Atrex Energy. "We already have an extensive statewide CNG fueling station network. Since most hydrogen comes from natural gas anyway, using the fuel directly could avoid the cost of extracting and delivering the hydrogen. It is an idea to be looked at more closely after our demonstration."
The ATV was chosen for a number of reasons: First, over 200,000 of them are used by farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley and contribute to air pollution when powered with small gasoline or diesel engines which are significantly dirtier than those in cars. An attempt to replace these gas and diesel fueled ATV’s with battery-electric versions was unsuccessful due to severe limitations on range. With an on-board fuel cell recharger, the range was increased 350%. Second, the power requirements of the small ATV were a good match for the available commercial fuel cell.