Methane is one of the most harmful of all the greenhouse gasses, but new research could be the secret to harnessing this energy for common electronics.
Electrochemical fuel cells have always been viewed as a clean source of power, but using them in any other setting than the laboratory has been hindered by their high cost, reliability issues, and temperature.
Fuel cells usually work by converting chemical energy (often from a hydrocarbon fuel such as methane) into electrical energy by way of an electrochemical reaction.. The reaction results in electricity, by-product water, and by-product heat (FTEC).
Recently, a group of researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) reported several critical advances in solid-oxide fuel cell technology that may quicken their pace to market in practical forms.
First, they found a way to eliminate the platinum in thin-film micro fuel cells, but using ceramic instead. Next, they were able to demonstrate a methane-fueled micro-SOFC operating at much lower temperatures than many scientists thought was possible.
Lead researcher Shriram Ramanathan explains the significance of these breakthroughs in ScienceDaily:
"Low temperature is a holy grail in this field," says Ramanathan. "If you can realize high-performance solid-oxide fuel cells that operate in the 300-500°C range, you can use them in transportation vehicles and portable electronics, and with different types of fuels."
It's also significant that Ramanathan conducted his ground-breaking experiments with methane instead of hydrogen, the preferred fuel for SOFCs. Methane is much more abundant and affordable ( from cows, landfills, and from sinks trapped below the earth's surface), and requires less processing than pure hydrogen.
We've already seen fuel cells powered by urine and microbes, so using a readily available natural gas to juice up our electronics doesn't seem like that much of a stretch. Ramanathan hopes that his research will help scientists reach "the goal of identifying affordable, earth-abundant materials that can help lower the operating temperature even further," and make commercial fuel cells a reality.
Image Credit: Flickr - andronicusmax