Research Energizes Fuel-Cell Potential

Research into new energy sources and component materials may expand potential fuel-cell applications, in some cases by shrinking them to sizes appropriate for laptop computers and small appliances. Investigators at St. Louis University are studying the use of alcohol to power fuel cells of postage-stamp proportions.

06/01/2003


Research into new energy sources and component materials may expand potential fuel-cell applications, in some cases by shrinking them to sizes appropriate for laptop computers and small appliances.

Investigators at St. Louis University are studying the use of alcohol to power fuel cells of postage-stamp proportions. Vodka, gin, white wine and flat beer have been used so far to successfully recharge the units. The units tap the energy released in an enzymatic reaction, an old approach given new life with the introduction of advanced materials. Scientists have coated the cells' electrodes with a special polymer, featuring pores that provide an environment more suitable to the enzymes than previous approaches. In their report to a March meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers claimed the units could last up to a month on just a few drops of ethanol-based alcohol.

British manufacturer Generics Group, Ltd., is investigating a design that replaces traditional metal flow-field plates with a 1-micron-thick, perforated polymer membrane. The membrane is designed to selectively perform either anode or cathode functions. A Generics Group spokesperson claims the company's design could result in significant cost reductions and a super-slim product that could be produced on a printing press. A 50-watt portable demonstration model is now in development and is planned to be completed in the next 18 to 24 months.

A more conventional approach is now being implemented in King County, Washington, where officials broke ground in April for what they are calling the world's largest sewage-powered fuel-cell plant. The facility will produce up to one megawatt of electricity using methane gas generated at a wastewater treatment plant. Authorities say it equates to about $400,000 annually. The installation will be operated as a federally subsidized demonstration project for two years, to test high energy-conversion claims.





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