Alternative Energy: A Fuel Cell That Burns Charcoal

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A researcher at the University of Hawaii has developed a fuel cell that burns charcoal.

It’s different from conventional fuel cells in two ways. First, charcoal is a renewable fuel and (second) the burning works at relatively warm temperatures – warm enough to bake bread.

Most fuel cells are designed to burn hydrogen. It’s touted as a “clean fuel” while most think of charcoal as dirty.

Actually, the burning of hydrogen just displaces the pollution. Here’s why…

Hydrogen is not widely available in nature in pure collectible form. It takes energy to get it there. The best way to do is by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. But, guess what?

Old-fashioned power plants do that “dirty work.” Yes, fuel cell-based vehicles may emit nice water vapors, but the power plants making them possible will still be furiously cranking out carbon dioxide (CO2) hundreds of miles away.

That’s why I’ve never considered fuel cells a real solution to global warming or a true power source. They’re more like camouflage for a continued fossil fuel regime.

Dr. Antal’s approach is different. He describes it as, “effectively a battery that uses charcoal to make electricity.” It doesn’t produce soot.

It works at 400 degrees Farenheit. Conventional fuel cells work at approximately 1,500 degrees. The system should be suitable for mid-sized power plants and perhaps even vehicles.

The system works similarly to a battery, except that the positive terminal is filled with charcoal dust and the whole system is under pressure. The negative terminal catalyzes the “battery solution,” which causes the charcoal to turn into carbon dioxide and water, thereby releasing energy.

Traditional fossil fuels, such as gasoline, release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that’s been deeply trapped underground. That’s how they add to atmospheric CO2.

Charcoal, on the other hand, is simply is way of storing carbon dioxide captured by above-ground plants. Burning it releases that CO2 back into the atmosphere for no net gain.

A few challenges remain. Antal’s group is working on streamlining the feed of charcoal into the system and optimizing the catalysts and mixtures.

They have also developed a “flash carbonization reactor.” It turns all kinds of biomass such as macadamia nut shells, wood and grass into charcoal. A commercial-sized version of this could potentially work in perfect synergy with the new fuel cells.

Let’s see if the proponents of fuel cells jump all over this one. Don’t be surprised if they ignore it. In any case, large-scale deployment is at minimum five years away.

Jonathan Kolber
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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Comments

  1. COOL! … Errr, HOT!

    This Fuel Cell in combination with Hydrogen fuel cells would make a great deal of economic sense – The charcoal FC for getting the hydrogen out of the water, and the hydrogen FC (seems like it would be much more compact and versatile) for private users.

    Reply
  2. “power plants making them possible will still be furiously cranking out carbon dioxide (CO2) hundreds of miles away.”
    You omitted the word “some”, as in some power plants. Unlike the internal combustion engine which “always” emits pollution, many power plants are hydro-electric, solar, wind, etc. and produce zero pollution.
    Please try to be a little more accurate and emit a little less hype.

    Reply
  3. Yoel: The only problem with this theory is that Hydrogen is extremely difficult to transport for private use. Charcoal powder seems easier to transport than Liquid Hydrogen.

    Reply
  4. I believe nuclear power plants could do a much more effective job of producing hydrogen. The new technology for nuke plants will allow them to be much safer.

    Reply
  5. During a recent visit to Southern Africa in a British Trade Mission I was appalled at the prolific cut out of virgin forests for Charcoal Burning for primary energies and no attempt at any reforestation and with disasterous results of :
    Lowering Water Tables and increased:
    > Soil Erosion
    > Increased Desertification
    In travels trough Zambia and in Game Parks the Dambos(swamps) and road verges are covered with very tall Grasses,
    ( Papyrus,Elephant grasses , Miscanthus,Reeds,Kenaf ) etc
    It should be possible to effectively use these grasses for carbonising and briquetting thereby reducing the desecration of the Environments and reduce importation of Finite Fossil Fuels. We would be interested in obtaining information on technologies for utilising grass for charcoal.

    frank ferguson
    August 4, 2007
    Reply
  6. Details of processes to carbonise and briquette grasses are required

    frank ferguson
    August 4, 2007
    Reply
  7. carbon sequestration combined ith Renewable Energies , environmental Protection and Poverty Reduction

    frank ferguson
    August 4, 2007
    Reply
  8. We carbonised macadamia shells, & can briquette the carbon. Or wood carbon. But recently we prepared 10 tons of wheat-straw carbon for a trial. I see no reason why we cannot do the same with other grasses, corn stover, sugarcane bagasse other agri-waste. But ours is a start-up company; need revenue now, & can’t afford philanthropy yet.
    Other challenges are logistics (can’t justify transporting waste), marketing, sustainable sources of waste biomass.

    Reply
  9. We have an annually renewable supply of English walnut shells and are very interested in turning this waste into a resource. We have a market for activated charcoal and the raw material but lack the knowledge of producing activated charcoal in an economical means.

    Reply

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