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Ordinary energy powers new fuel cell
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have built a fuel cell that runs efficiently on readily available forms of hydrocarbon fuels such as methane and butane instead of pure hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the conventional fuel for a fuel cell. It reacts with oxygen from the air in such a way that electrical power is generated. The byproducts are heat and water.
The practical generation and storage of hydrogen, however, is a technological hurdle to the mass production of cheap, efficient and clean energy.
"Most hydrogen is produced from methane and other hydrocarbon fuels," said Raymond Gorte, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania who helped build the fuel cell. "We eliminated the need to reform hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen."
The fuel cell developed by Gorte and colleagues could be an alternative to hydrogen-based fuel-cell technology, according to an article in the March 16 issue of Nature.
Previous attempts to run a solid-oxide fuel cell on hydrocarbon fuels failed because the electrochemical process that generates electricity caused a buildup of carbon, which ruined the cell.
"Our fuel cell research goal was to come up with material which did not result in fouling," said Gorte. That material lasted four days without any signs of fouling, and Gorte thinks it should remain stable for a much longer period of time.
Scientists hold that energy extraction from fuels by means of electrochemical processes is cleaner and more efficient than combustion engines that currently dominate the energy market.
"By the end of this century, these fiery combustion processes may be banned," writes Kevin Kendall of the University of Birmingham, England, in an accompanying Nature article. "Even now the trend is apparent: smoking is frowned upon; fires in forests are not permitted; dirty vehicles are penalized ..."
The Gas Research Institute in Chicago, Illinois, funded Gorte's research. The goal of the institute is to generate electrical power in every home through sources such as fuel cells.
"Instead of being hooked up to the local electricity grid for electricity, you would have natural gas coming in to a fuel cell in the basement," said Gorte.
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