Friday, May 20, 2005

Look Ma - No 'Branes

And you thought that was the cry of the typical teenager. Well it could be if the spelling was different. This is completely different. It is about a fuel cell with no membranes. Why is this important?

The current leader in portable fuel cell technology the PEM membrane has problems. Besides efficiency highly dependant on load (high internal resistance) the membranes clog with carbonates in operation (from atmospheric CO2 among other reasons) and are not very permiable to the OH- radical.

This new type of fuel cell uses a microfluidic channel to keep the flows seperate. It takes advantage of laminar flow to control the interface of the two fluids. (BTW visit the link - they have a very nice diagram).

A new type of fuel cell can operate without a solid membrane separating fuel and oxidant, while it also works with alkaline chemistry in addition to the more common acidic chemistry.

Like a battery, a fuel cell changes chemical energy into electrical energy. While most fuel cells employ a physical barrier to separate the fuel and oxidant, the microfluidic fuel cell developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign utilizes multi-stream laminar flow to accomplish the same task.

"The system uses a Y-shaped microfluidic channel in which two liquid streams containing fuel and oxidant merge and flow between catalyst-covered electrodes without mixing," said Paul Kenis, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
The key here is that at this point there is a lot of development to be done in the fuel cell area. This particular development may be key or it could be a dead end. It is way too early for the government to mandate a system. We may be heading for an ethanol/methanol economy rather than a hydrogen one.

I first saw this in Appliance Design Magazine. What this also tells you is that there is no secret cabal holding us back. It is only ignorance. And correcting that problem takes time.

Update: 20 May 05 1903z

Here are a few more links that may be of interest:

Chemical and Engineering News covers possible manufacturing methods.

Batterries Digest covers fuel cell concepts.

Fuel Cell Works covers the investment angle.

The University of Illinois reports on the research on the microchannel fuel cell and gives credit to the various researchers from the university who worked on the project.

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