This could get technical when we start talking about direct methanol fuel cells! But don’t worry; I’ll do my best to make it user-friendly! Direct methanol fuel cells are a subcategory of proton-exchange fuel cells where the alternative fuel called methanol is not reformed but fed directly to the fuel cell.
Because the methanol is fed directly into the fuel cell, complicated catalytic reforming is unneeded and storage of methanol is much easier than that of hydrogen because it does not need to be done at high pressures or low temperature because methanol is a liquid. Basically that means that a direct methanol fuel cell doesn’t require the complicated process that is required of gasoline, and that is a good thing!
Because of the energy density of methanol, the amount of energy released by using a given volume of methanol is in orders of magnitude greater than even highly compressed hydrogen. So having a direct methanol fuel cell can help bypass all of the procedures that are found in gasoline engines making an alternative fuel vehicle much more efficient when it is running on methanol.
On the other hand, the efficiency of direct methanol fuel cells is low due to the high permeation of methanol through the membrane of the fuel cell. This is known as methanol crossover and the dynamic behavior is sluggish. Other problems include the management of carbon dioxide that is evolved at the anode.
At the current level of the technology, direct methanol fuel cells are limited in the power that they can produce. However, they can still store much more energy in a smaller space. That means they can produce a small amount of power over a long period of time. This makes them ill-suited for powering vehicles but ideal for consumer goods like mobile phones, digital cameras, and laptops.
Another issue with a direct methanol fuel cell has to do with methanol’s chemical properties. It is toxic and flammable. But there are exceptions to be made. Because direct methanol fuel cells are allowed on airplanes to power laptop computers along with other consumer electronic devices, they can also be fought for to power vehicles as well.
Yes, it does seem complicated when we start throwing around complex phrases such as direct methanol fuel cell. But the reality is that these types of batteries and power sources are being used everyday to power small appliances with a minimum of environmental damage. Why shouldn’t we be able to use the same thing to power cars?