Mini fuel cells

Tom James @ 26-01-2009

mini_fuel_cellEntering a key stage in the development of fuel cells: making them small enough to be ubiquitous, what’s the betting these’ll be in everything everywhere within 20 years?

The world’s smallest working fuel cell has been created by US chemical engineers, at just 3 millimetres across. Future versions of the tiny hydrogen-fuelled power pack could replace batteries in portable gadgets.

While batteries are used to do that today, fuel cells are able to store more energy in the same space. Even the most advanced batteries have an energy density an order of magnitude smaller than that of a hydrogen fuel tank.

[from New Scientist, via Bruce Sterling][image from New Scientist and Saeed Moghaddam]


"Major discovery" could spark solar revolution

Edward Willett @ 31-07-2008

776px-SolarFachwerkhaus MIT scientists are touting a “major discovery” that will transfer solar power from a “limited, far-off solution” to “unlimited and soon.” (Via EurekAlert.)

Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work that’s in the July 31 issue of Science, and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow his lab, have created a new  catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water. When combined with another catalyst that produces hydrogen, their system can duplicate the water-splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis. Hydrogen and oxygen produced during the day while the sun is shining can be combined in a fuel cell at night when it’s not, solving the biggest problem with solar power–it doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine. Current methods of storing that energy are both too expensive and very inefficient.

Best of all, the new catalyst is made from abundant, non-toxic natural materials: it consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on it, and oxygen gas is produced. The catalyst works at room temperature and in neutral pH water, and is easy to set up.

Superlatives are being implemented to describe the discovery:

James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a “giant leap” toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

“This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”

Nocera hopes that within 10 years the system will be available to homeowners, allowing them to power their homes during the day with photovoltaic cells and use hydrogen and oxygen produced with the day’s excess energy to power their homes at night.

The net result?

Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.

(Photo by T


Rainbows and Unicorn Farts…

Tom James @ 19-06-2008

…are about as likely to solve the two little problems of peak oil and global warming as hydrogen fuel cell technology.

hydrogenSorry to flog a dead horse here but it’s always worth repeating something, especially if you’ve found someone who can express the idea more articulately than you can.

Joseph Romm of the Center (sic) for American Progress (centrist American think tank) writes eloquently on the reasons why hydrogen fuel-cell powered automobiles are a dead-end and that there are better alternatives:

More than 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen is made from natural gas, so running a car on hydrogen doesn’t reduce net carbon dioxide emissions compared with a hybrid like the Prius running on gasoline. Okay, you say, can’t hydrogen be made from carbon-free sources of power, like wind energy or nuclear? Sure, but so can electricity for electric cars. And this gets to the heart of why hydrogen cars would be the last car you would ever want to buy: they are wildly inefficient compared with electric cars.

I’ve never been entirely clear why investors, boffins, and the popular press like hydrogen fuel cells so much. And why the insist on using the buzzword the hydrogen economy, implying that this is capable of replacing our current oil-based transport setup. Is it just because the cars themselves don’t emit any carbon dioxide during operation? I don’t know, but I suspect some people, including automakers Honda are in for a nasty shock.

[story via Technology Review][image by mirrorgirl]


Hydrogen Dreams

Tom James @ 09-06-2008

One of my bugbears is the constant implication in the popular press that the twin problems of anthropogenic global warming and peak oil will be solved by the mythical “hydrogen economy.”

Take this article in The Guardian newspaper:

The main fuels used in history form a nearly exact sequence, from ones having hydrogen_carless hydrogen to ones having more. Wood and charcoal were the earliest fuels, and have only a little hydrogen. Much of their burning is wasted in pouring out great gusts of carbon, which was needed to build up the tree from which the wood came, but doesn’t do much for the user burning that wood.

Coal has more hydrogen, and its burning can be cleaner. Oil – which dominated next – has yet more hydrogen per unit of carbon; natural gas has even more, and its burning is the cleanest and most efficient of them all. The trend line points pretty strongly to a pure hydrogen economy – but when that will occur is in the hands not of the scientists, but our wise political masters.

Hydrogen fuel cells have some promise as an energy storage medium, but you still need a source of energy in the first place: much of the commercial hydrogen produced today is actually produced from natural gas in a process which still produces carbon dioxide emissions.

Alternative methods using biological extraction have proven successful – but they still don’t tackle the nuclearfundamental problem of where the energy to extract the hydrogen comes from. With oil running out and our current industrial infrastructure reliant on dumping stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere this is the problem that needs to be solved.

And if the basic problem is getting energy, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on that and, once this problem is solved, use this source of hydrogen-producing energy to produce petroleum via the Fischer-Tropsch process and save £X trillions by avoiding upgrading our entire transport infrastructure to use hydrogen tanks and fuel cells?

My conclusion: every penny of research currently being poured into the hydrogen economy should be diverted into developing cleaner nuclear fission and synthetic petroleum fuel combined with hybrid electric-petrol vehicles.

Monday rant over.

[main article from The Guardian][other articles from PhysOrg][images from felixmolter and gavindjharper]


Travel hypersonically from the EU to Australia in 5 hours

Tomas Martin @ 07-02-2008

Fancy a quick day trip halfway across the world?The guardian has a technology article about a UK study on hypersonic aviation that concluded that producing a plane fueled by liquid hydrogen could feasibly transport commercial passengers on long distances in much shorter times than current planes. Provided the hydrogen is created without using hydrocarbons (not easy currently but potentially doable in the future), the flight will be pollution-low, as hydrogen burns to form plain old water, although as the correction to the article mentions, Nitrogen oxide byproducts would still need to be contained.

There are issues though, before we can hop on a sub-orbital or hypersonic flight. Like the Virgin Galactic project, there are concerns about how well us puny humans can cope up there in high-atmosphere at very fast speeds. And, like Paul said earlier today, the future is expensive, including that of flight – will people be willing to pay many times more for such a ticket? Incidentally, isn’t it neat that the design looks and behaves just like the ‘Fireflash’ hypersonic airliner out of Thunderbirds? Supermarionation is the future!

[link and picture via the guardian]


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