Stories tagged fuel cell

Researchers at Penn State University have developed a fuel cell in which common bacteria produce copious amounts of hydrogen. Some experts believe hydrogen will replace oil as the fuel of the future, if we can find a way to produce it cheaply. The new apparatus uses waste water, plant material and bugs to produce hydrogen.


I am the proud owner and driver of a Gordon Ragnarok, a medium sized family sedan. The Ragnarok was developed by my brother and I, hence the Gordon branding. It is fueled by a diamond-rich blend of precious stones (I’ve tried using a more ruby-heavy mixture, but the performance suffers), and it emits a burning stream of sulfurous gas, which is quite harmless to the occupants of the car.

The vehicle is a delight to drive, and is admired by my neighbors and coworkers, however I am beginning to realize that diamond/jewel fuel is increasingly difficult to find. Sure, there are more jewels out there – quite possibly vast reserves of them – but the politics of acquiring and operating a reliable diamond mine are… sticky.

New developments in hydrogen storage technology may be bringing alternative fuels closer to practical application. This is good news for me (and, perhaps, other people, although most other people run their cars on, ha, considerably less concentrated carbon than I use).

Many of you are probably already familiar with the concept behind hydrogen fuel cells (take a look at this post’s tags for some other good blogs on fuel cell technology), but the basic idea is to use an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which can then be used, of course, to run something like, say, a car of the future. What’s more, this car of the future should only emit water vapor, instead of CO2 and other polluting gases. The volunteers in the SMM’s Experiment Gallery have a pretty slick visitor activity where they use a glass of water and miniature fuel cell to power a fan. I recommend it.

Anyhow, there’s lots of science involved here, and some sophisticated proton exchange membranes, and some hydrogen storage tanks. Lots of hydrogen storage tanks, unfortunately. See, safely and efficiently storing enough hydrogen fuel for a vehicle to have a reasonable range (something like 300 miles) has been a major obstacle to fuel cell cars. Compressing enough hydrogen gas into cylinders or storage tanks to reach a sufficient range would be prohibitively heavy and bulky. Scientists in the UK, however, have recently developed a new compound of the element lithium that could allow for high-density, light weight storage of hydrogen.
Li4BN3H10 - Not as pretty as the Ragnarok's crystal fuel, or as cuddly as the Mark II's, but maybe more practical.: "Hydrogen (H) atoms are shown in green, lithium (Li) atoms in dark grey, nitrogen (N) atoms in blue and boron (B) atoms are in grey and inside the pyramids." (Credit: Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)
Li4BN3H10 - Not as pretty as the Ragnarok's crystal fuel, or as cuddly as the Mark II's, but maybe more practical.: "Hydrogen (H) atoms are shown in green, lithium (Li) atoms in dark grey, nitrogen (N) atoms in blue and boron (B) atoms are in grey and inside the pyramids." (Credit: Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)

Crystals of the lithium compound (Li4BN3H10, to be specific) absorb atoms of hydrogen gas, and then release it as needed. The process, called “chemisorption” isn’t anything new, but a material was needed that would be a “light, cheap, readily available material which would enable the absorption/desorption process to take place rapidly and safely at typical fuel cell operating temperatures.” Li4BN3H10 seems to be an excellent mix of those properties, and the scientists involved in the project claim that it could allow for fuel cell cars to become “viable for mass-manufacture within around 10 years.”

Oddly enough, this is where this story loses me a little bit – it seems like we often hear about breakthroughs that place next generation technology right around the corner, and yet it’s difficult to imagine very many people driving around in fuel cell cars in anywhere near ten years. GM, as it happens, produced a prototype fuel cell vehicle in 1966 called “The Electrovan.” I’m sure The Electrovan had some serious practicality issues (it weighed twice as much as a normal van, for one), but, still, that was over forty years ago. The world has produced some rad stuff inside the last forty years (me), but no more Electrovans. Is the problem that, however excited the lithium researchers might be, there are still too many other barriers? Or because it won’t be in the interest of businesses and governments until fossils fuels are no longer a practical option? Or simply because we can’t imagine a near future swarming with Electrovans?

I’m definitely interested in the progress being made with fuel cell technology, and I’m hopeful that practical application isn’t too far away, but that doesn’t mean that my brother and I will be halting the development of the Gordon Ragnarok Mark II. In an effort to take advantage of a cheaper, more plentiful energy source, the Mark II is designed to use puppies as fuel. Theoretically, full-grown dogs should work as well, but dogs suffer from the same storage barriers as compressed hydrogen (heavy, bulky, and potentially dangerous). Woof.

Hydrogen Storage Breakthrough

Wikipedia’s Fuel Cell Entry

A future swarming with Electrovans


Cow Power: photo by Art Oglesby,    Cow manure can produce electricity.
Cow Power: photo by Art Oglesby, Cow manure can produce electricity.

What comes out of the back end of a cow?

Milk and manure. The cows at the Audet family's Blue Spruce Farm make almost 9,000 gallons of milk a day — and about 35,000 gallons of manure. With the help of their power company, Central Vermont Public Service Corp., the Audets have devised a way to extract methane from the manure and pipe it to a generator. They make enough electricity to power 300 to 400 average Vermont homes.

How can electricity be made from cow manure?

If cow manure is pushed into a long, narrow tank and held around 100 degrees, in about 20 days bacteria will digest the manure into methane gas and a liquid slurry. The methane can run an engine and generator to make electricity. A dry, odor-free, fluffy brown substance that is used as bedding for the cows can also be extracted. The remaining liquid contains enough nutrients that it can be used as fertilizer for the farm's feed crops.

Do farms in Minnesota make electricity from manure?

Since late 1999, the Haubenschild farm has been converting their cow manure into electricity. At first they, too, digested manure producing methane which fueled a generator to produce electricity. Then, on Jan. 27, 2005, for the first time anywhere in the world, the methane was fed into a fuel cell.
A fuel cell is like a battery. A chemical reaction generates the electricity. It is totally quiet, and the only waste product is clean water. Haubenschild said it costs 5.1 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity from the fuel cell and Great River Energy will buy the surplus electricity from the fuel cell for four cents per KWH. If Minnesota power companies can create a progam similar to Vermont's Cow power program, customers willing to pay a couple extra cents per KWH would allow farmers to make money instead of losing money.

What are the benefits of anaerobic digestion?

    Reduced odor and greenhouse gas emissions
    Fewer pathogens in the digested product
    Nutrient rich effluent to apply to crops
    Electricity to use and to sell
    Possible sale of separated solids as a garden amendment
    Good manure management
    Pay back on the investment

Read more about Cow power
Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, Univ. of MN.
Princeton Union-Eagle
Pioneer Press
FAQ about CVPS Cow Power

Sir William Robert Grove, British physicist and high court justice, invented the fuel cell in 1839 (!), when he mixed hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte to produce electricity and water. The technology wasn't seriously revisited until the 1960s, and it's Buzz-worthy again today as we try to break our dependence on fossil fuels.