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Methanol fuel cells are not a brand new technology (see our 2007 interview with Smart Fuel Cells), but they are most certainly not the best-known gasoline alternative. Over at the Huffington Post, Patrick Takahashi is trying to change how we think of direct methanol fuel cells by comparing them to the future of lithium-ion batteries used in plug-in hybrids. He writes:

Per unit volume, a fuel cell should be able to provide five times more energy than the lithium battery. ... However, and this defies common sense, one gallon of methanol has more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen. Thus, the logic argues for producing methanol from biomass to power a fuel cell, as hydrogen is very expensive to manufacture, store and deliver. This simplest of alcohols is the only biofuel capable of directly and efficiently being utilized by a fuel cell without passing through an expensive reformer.

Takahashi does recognize the issues with direct methanol fuel cells, including that it'll probably take at least a decade to get them into mass produced vehicles. He's optimistic, though, saying that, "watch out for the direct methanol fuel cell, for this virtually ignored opportunity could well either someday replace vehicles powered by batteries or in parallel maybe develop even faster." Smart Fuel Cells will tell you they have "successfully overcome all major hurdles of commercialization of fuel cells" (just see their slideshow presentation, below). It's unlikely, though, that there there will be any movement towards these methanol cells when even big investments in PHEV technology aren't working out as planned.


[Source: HuffPo]


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  • 15 Comments
      • 6 Years Ago
      I believe Charlie's analysis is generally accurate and proves the virtue of electric drive using electric battery energy storage. However, this still highlights the issue regarding longer driving, and does not address the issue of generating electricity.

      Better Place's concept of fast charging and occasional battery swap stations pretty much takes care of longer driving -- but although I think it is a good solution for the majority of urban and suburban travelers, America is a big country and it will be difficult to install all such necessary stations for its entirety.

      But on the issue of electrical energy generation, there are three possibilities: 1. some sort of conventional power plant; 2. clean energy over a well-developed grid (and to a much lesser extent distributed (home) generation); 3. automobile engines as motivators and generators. The first is not optimal but practical for the short-term. The second is clearly best but a more long-term solution. The third is immediately available and practical and not a bad idea, because not only does it provide a fairly efficient way to generate electricity for battery recharge but also allows the car to be driven on highways at the greatest efficiency.

      In brief, let's push for parallel PHEVs with owner-determined battery pack size based on cost and need, and small, efficient engines that can work on the highways. Ultimately, the trade-off for, say, the cost of a small efficient diesel and a 6 KWH battery pack with a motor that can handle full-spectrum driving (probably good for 20 miles all-electric real world driving) with available addition of batteries will be cost-effective immediately. Install battery charging stations and clean energy as we go -- using the labor force from our soon-to-be-defunct American automobile industry which didn't have the basic foresight to see progress coming.

      • 6 Years Ago
      [b]Charlie[/b] said....."So I think it would be pretty unfortunate if the sole reason that we couldn't adopt battery electric cars is small portion of long road trip driving. While I don't like the idea of permanently carrying around a gasoline engine as in a PHEV, maybe there should be some sort of range extending motor package that you can drop in for road trips?"

      My sentiments exactly. How large an engine do you actually need to drive a generator anyway? A drop-in engine module for those times you need to go on long trips makes perfect sense to me.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Methanol is much easier to store than Hydrogen, and easier to transport. Direct Methanol fuel cells don't require a separate reformer, they oxidize methanol directly. DMFC devices are easy to refill, much quicker than recharging batteries.

      But there are drawbacks. The cost per watt is high - not a serious problem for portable electronics using just a few watts, but the cost becomes prohibitive in the 80 Kw to 100 Kw sizes needed for automotive use. Few could afford a half million dollar car.

      Also, the cost of methanol fuel is much higher than the cost of electricity - again, not a problem for low power devices, but a serious handicap for automotive use.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Direct methanol fuel cells still haven't moved beyond prototype stage for electronics, much less passenger vehicles.

      DFMC were supposed to have been here several years ago to power consumer electronics like laptops.

      But the only retail fuel cell you can buy today is Medis's sodium borohydride cell, which puts out a whopping 1 watt of power (just enough to slowly charge your cellphone)

      Clearly even small fuel cells for modest power applications like your laptop are several more years away.

      Don't hold your breath waiting for them to power a passenger vehicle.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Methanol is far better used in Internal Combustion Engines than in fuel cells.

      http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-methanol-alternative

      Although if you had to use a fuel cell, I'd use methanol rather than hydrogen, which is an enormous boondoggle, the "Hydrogen Hoax":

      http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-hydrogen-hoax
      • 6 Years Ago
      No, direct methanol fuel cells will not beat lithium ion batteries -- because they're different tools for different jobs. The fuel cell -> electric motor is just another way to build a conventional methanol engine, thermodynamically speaking. A lithium-ion battery is a an energy storage device.

      I guess you could argue that they're similar, since methanol gets its energy as the corn or whatever grows in the sunlight... But with methanol, I have only one choice of energy, whereas I can charge the battery from many sources.
        • 5 Months Ago
        You're confusing methanol and ethanol. Ethanol can (currently, in commercially viable form) only be produced from starchy or sweet crops.

        Methanol, by contrast, can be produced from any biomass, including sewage, recycled urban trash, crop residues (the stems, roots, cobs, and leaves of corn, for instance), etc. Methanol can even be made from natural gas and coal. The range of sources of energy for alcohol fuels is vast.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Rather than comparing them to plug in hybrids, wouldn't it make more sense to compare them to hydrogen?
      • 6 Years Ago
      Looks promissing. As the article points out, more marketing and education needs to be done to the public before they "get it".

      The battery technology that is highly regarded on this website, is great, but there is a large population that can't stand the way this technology inhibits their lifestyle. Such as horrible recharge time and limits to range when driven to extremes. Mountain living as I do, requires enough power to get up and down the mountain during all types of weather. I don't want to be in a battery only car through a snowstorm in the Swiss Alps!!! Forget about it!

      I also enjoy driving a nice sports car that doesn't run out of power after a run on the Nurburgring. The TESLA, which I love, just is not going to cut it in this category either. It runs out of power after 50 miles of sporty driving!! On a weekend fun trip, who can take that car anywhere???

      The point is, most people can use a hybrid and Fuel Cell for daily use AND use them for longer fun trips. Lowers cost of ownership and use of airlines if one wants to go that much further than the battery only car. All these technologies DO NOT need to come overnight.

      If you wan't a battery car, by all means get one...just don't force them on me.

        • 5 Months Ago
        Wow so many people misinformed by the Tesla bit on Top Gear. In case you haven't noticed, the 55 miles they done was not just under "sporty" driving. It's under track day driving and hitting very high speeds you won't see on most public roads. If you look at the other reviews done with "sporty" driving (ie like the ABG reviews) you see it gets ~150 miles.

        And the Tesla Roadster can climb (very) steep hills, know because I heard from an owner who lives in San Francisco who pointed it out; I doubt it'll have a hard time doing so in your mountain.

        On the lifestyle bit, no one is forcing you to change it. There will still be ICE cars around even if a majority of cars switch to other types. And NONE of these technologies are coming overnight (who gave you that idea?) Also don't really agree on the bit about how most people can use the fuel cell for fun trips, the fueling infrastructure is non-existent and most people can't afford one, so actually very few people can use one (unless it gets adopted overnight like to don't want to).

        On topic with the methanol bit, the technology does have some promise, so I guess we'll see. Not much interest in using them in cars, but it might happen in the future. Haven't done enough research on it to know all the upsides and downsides of it, so can't really comment further. Of course there are the usual questions on how sustainable it is, the cost of the fuel cells, cost of fueling infrastructure, etc.
      • 6 Years Ago
      After reading this article I did some research into direct methanol fuel cells. Apparently, they are extremely inefficient even compared to hydrogen fuel cells. Even hydrogen fuel cells are only 40% to 50% efficient.

      And all these fuel cells require large amounts of platinum, and all the analyst papers I've read believe that fuel cells could not be mass marketed until a non-platinum catalyst is developed.

      I think that there is a lot of promise in batteries. Even looking at the newly developed lithium ion batteries with nano tech anodes/cathodes, they're supposedly matching the energy density of the normal batteries while reducing charge time down to 10 minutes in the lab. Getting real world charge times down to ~1 hour would be huge.

      Also, it would be incredibly easy to build a national network of car electricity outlets in office and retail parking lots. Like the concept of Better Place, you could just plug in while you're at work or in the mall to constantly stay topped off. If you have that sort of flexibility, how much real world mileage do you need for the 90% of your driving that isn't long distance road trips? 120 miles? 150 miles?

      I've been looking at the technology a lot, and batteries seem to be by far the most efficient way to do it. Look at hydrogen, you only get 70% efficiency when reforming it from natural gas or in electrolysis, and then 90% when you compress or liquefy it, and then only 40% when you run it through the fuel cell. Only 25% efficiency total. You don't have to reform the methanol, but the fuel cell is even less efficient and if you're making it from biomass then thats not a very efficient process.

      Compare this to a battery electric car, where the lithium ion batteries we hypothetically use are a mature technology that is in your cell phone and laptop. They have a 99.9% charge/discharge efficiency, and then the electrical controller is 90% to 95%, and then even if you take some efficiency away for what you need to spend on cooling/heating the batteries in certain circumstances... probably an absolute minimum of 85% efficiency from the power outlet to the electric motor. Compare that to the 40% efficiency of the hydrogen fuel cell, fill station to electric motor.

      So I think it would be pretty unfortunate if the sole reason that we couldn't adopt battery electric cars is small portion of long road trip driving. While I don't like the idea of permanently carrying around a gasoline engine as in a PHEV, maybe there should be some sort of range extending motor package that you can drop in for road trips?

      With project Better Place that I mentioned above they also envision massive networks of automated battery swap stations, which would solve the range problem.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Since no one has proposed how to reform the Oil Futures Market, no one can predict what the price of a barrel of oil will be one month from now.

      Methanol has a bit of a problem for home use, you can't plug into something and produce methanol, so, Methanol can only be used in a Hybrid, to replace Gas or Diesel. Why do that? Why waste the money on the part of the equation that will be continuously shrinking as battery/capacitor tech improves with nano-technology and materials and manufacturing improvments. As batteries/capacitors get the investment V8's have gotten over the last 50 years, the gas part of the hybrid equation should shrink to 10% of energy use in transportation.

      While we enjoy bigger better electric motors and a world-wide cleaner environment.

      Invest in battery/capacitor/nano industry.



        • 5 Months Ago
        Just stumbled upon this old article and had to respond to Ahmet Hamdi Cavusoglu's point #1.

        "The volumetric energy density of methanol is considerably higher than liquid hydrogen, in part because of the low [mass] density of liquid hydrogen of 71 grams/litre. Hence there is actually more hydrogen in a litre of methanol (99 grams/litre) than in a litre of liquid hydrogen, and methanol needs no cryogenic container maintained at a temperature of -253°C."

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_economy#Advantages_over_hydrogen
        • 5 Months Ago
        Electric transmission losses in 1998 were 7.4%. That means that transmission is at least 92.6% efficient.
        Line losses are lower with higher voltage lines so we could work to improve this a little.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission

        Methanol fuel cells are at best 40% efficient which means that most of the energy in the fuel is wasted as heat. And on top of that there will be distribution losses.

        We cant afford to transition to a fuel with so much waste unless we have a nearly unlimited cheap supply of energy.
        • 5 Months Ago
        SO big issues ...

        1) It's LIQUID Gallon of Methanol possesses greater energy density than one GAS gallon of pressurized Hydrogen. This is just a fact. Liquid hydrogen has more available hydrogen, no mater what fool tells you otherwise (with out qualifying their statement)

        2) Methanol can be utilized in our current fuel system of stations and pumps with minor modification, hydrogen is an issue and using batteries/capacitors is foolish because of charge time (resistance will increase with time) and energy losses in electricity transmission.

        3) Methanol COULD be produced at home very easily. Furthermore, it is pretty cheap as a liquid.

        4) Nano-technology does better at getting closer to theoretical limits. The theoretical limit of a DMFC is much higher than batteries (ultra-capacitors COULD be better, but again pose a charging issue AND electrical failure can result in entire families going up in a flash of an electrical fire.

        5) As you thought, MeOH could be used as a fuel in ICE's, but this article is directed to the use of MeOH in DMFC's
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