Methanol fuel tailored for cars

January 10, 1997

SCIENTISTS at Essex University have developed a new catalyst for cars which could mean more efficient and cleaner transport.

Researchers in the department of biological and chemical sciences have created a catalyst which allows fuel technology, originally developed for Apollo space missions, to be used in electric cars.

The team, led by Alfred Tseung, sought to tackle the problem of using methanol, produced in huge quantities by the burning of coal and natural gas, as a raw fuel. The Apollo fuel cells used hydrogen as the raw fuel but storage difficulties make the gas impractical for cars.

While methanol breaks down to produce hydrogen, it also produces toxic carbon monoxide. A catalyst is required to oxidise the hydrogen to produce electricity, but the carbon monoxide byproduct quickly contaminates the catalyst and stops the energy producing process.

Professor Tseung's team found that by adding tungsten trioxide to the catalyst it was possible to filter out the carbon monoxide and maintain the production and oxidation of the hydrogen from the methanol.

Professor Tseung said: "There is now the prospect of using methanol as a fuel to drive electric vehicles with an efficiency of around 25 per cent to 30 per cent. By comparison a petrol-powered internal combustion engine has an efficiency in the region of 10 to 12 per cent."

Professor Tseung said motorists would be able to fill up on methanol from pumps and that it could be stored in normal fuel tanks. The professor said that the power plant could be used in production cars within five years.

He sees the methanol-powered fuel-cell as an intermediate stage which would be limited ultimately by the exhaustion of fossil fuels. But the hope is that practical ways of storing hydrogen would be developed before then.

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