New Fuel Cells May Use Gasoline, Not Hydrogen

Knoxville — A breakthrough in fuel cell technology may one day boost vehicle mileage by 300 percent.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania said they had success in using gasoline to power fuel cells, instead of using hydrogen, which is more volatile and expensive.

A University of Tennessee mechanical engineering professor said fuel cell research has struggled with issues relating to the use of hydrogen.

“In the past, the options have been either to store hydrogen onboard a vehicle, or take some other fuel and filter out the hydrogen,” said Dr. Jeff Hodgson, who is familiar with fuel cell technologies. Hodgson said previous fuel filtering techniques were difficult.

But the Pennsylvania studies seem to suggest that hydrogen is easily filtered out of gasoline, making fuel cells more feasible.

Fuel cells produce electricity and water by controlling the combination of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than internal-combustion engines, and vehicles powered by fuel cells have similar increases in mileage.

Hodgson said hydrogen is more plentiful in the universe than gasoline and similar complex hydrocarbons. But Hodgson said gasoline is easier and cheaper to get on the retail level.

“One of the big hurdles to buying or using fuel cells in a vehicle is ‘Where in the world am I going to get the hydrogen to fill it up?’,” Hodgson said.

“Well, if you have a system that allows you to go to the local service station and fill your tank with gasoline as you normally would, and the system extracts the fuel it needs, that would be a big step.”