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Nissan's bio-ethanol fuel cell would lower the cost of clean cars

It wants vehicles to use the plant-powered engine by 2020.

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Hydrogen fuel cell cars are eco-friendly, but they come at a steep cost: hydrogen is normally expensive to make and store. Nissan, however, thinks it has a solution. It's developing a fuel cell system that will use bio-ethanol (generated from crops like corn and sugarcane) as a hydrogen source when it reaches vehicles in 2020. The technology combines the transformed bio-ethanol with air to power an electric motor. You're theoretically getting a "carbon-neutral" car with much more range than a pure EV -- Nissan is aiming for 497 miles on a tank where even the best Tesla Model S runs out of power at 294 miles. And since you wouldn't need to store hydrogen, you wouldn't need either giant tanks inside cars or special fuel stations.

Whether or not anyone embraces the idea is another matter. Nissan believes that its bio-ethanol fuel cell would cost as little as an electric car to run, but that fuel still has to come from somewhere. Bio-ethanol requires a lot of farmland, and it's a stretch to claim that the plants would completely offset the carbon emissions involved in making this a reality.

There's also the question of whether or not this is little more than a stopgap measure on the way to an all-electric future. Electric car ranges should improve by 2020 -- there may not be much point to this fuel cell if you can get an EV that drives just as far. Nissan's main advantage may simply be the lower cost of the car itself, since early high-mileage EVs will likely be expensive.

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