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.
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