Biogas could provide portable power

Sensemaking / Biogas could provide portable power

21 Jun 2011

A biogas fuel cell could offer an affordable alternative to short-lived batteries

Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are pioneering a methane fuel cell which could provide portable storage for small-scale power generation, and an affordable alternative to conventional short-lived batteries for laptops and other portable devices.

Expense has held back the development of hydrogen fuel cells, which have an optimum operating temperature in excess of 800°C. Noble metal catalysts – such as platinum,  currently selling at £1,780 per troy ounce – are needed to reach these temperatures, but exposure to them accelerates the breakdown of other components.

The new micro-scale solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) is designed to run on a variety of hydrocarbon fuels, including methane, which can be generated cheaply from organic waste through anaerobic digestion. The research team, led by Shriram Ramanathan, believes the optimum operating temperature of the cell could be lowered by up to 500°C, saving energy and making it more practical, too. Cheaper catalysts, such as nickel and nickel oxide, can also be used, lowering costs.

From lavatory to laptop?

“This technology is very promising for clean and portable energy”, claims Ramanathan. Applications include a power source for small vehicles, such as forklifts, scooters, and recreational vehicles, and portable, efficient power for remote and rural areas. On a smaller scale and at lower temperatures, Ramanathan believes SOFCs will eventually be able to power portable electronics.

So how long do we have to wait? The research has attracted $500,000 of capital investment from Allied Minds, a corporation specialising in early stage university business ventures, and the Harvard Office of Technology Development has established SiEnergy Systems, LLC to commercialise the technology. SiEnergy is seeking further investors and industrial collaborators to target high-end commercial and military mobile power applications.

– Lucy Tooher

Image credit: ChepeNiccoli/istock

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