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Fuel cell technology

New fuel cell technology produces electricity from biomass and sunlight

Friday, February 28, 2014 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: fuel cell technology, biomass, electricity

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(NaturalNews) The future of renewable energy is upon us, as a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology has reportedly come up with a new way to extract energy directly from crude biomass, at room temperature, that avoids the need for expensive and pollutive precious metals or other conventional catalysts, all of which are ineffective at breaking down biomass.

As published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, the new study outlines a process by which biomass, including various organic materials, can be effectively broken down and converted into usable fuel using natural sunlight as the trigger. The study authors describe the process as being capable of efficiently generating electricity at low temperatures.

"Here we present a solar-induced hybrid fuel cell that is directly powered with natural polymeric biomasses, such as starch, cellulose, lignin, and even switchgrass and wood powders," reads the study abstract about how the technology works. "The fuel cell uses polyoxometalates as the photocatalyst and charge carrier to generate electricity at low temperature."

According to an announcement released by the school, researchers figured out a way to overcome the strong carbon-carbon bonds present in biomass, a barrier that up until now has restricted further development into biomass technologies, by inserting a catalyst that is only activated upon exposure to light or heat. When activated, this catalyst acts as both an oxidizing agent and a charge carrier, producing energy at room temperature without creating pollution.

"We have developed a new method that can handle the biomass at room temperature, and the type of biomass that can be used is not restricted -- the process can handle nearly any type of biomass," stated Yulin Deng, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology. "This is a very generic approach to utilizing many kinds of biomass and organic waste to produce electrical power without the need for purification of the starting materials."

Polyoxometalate found to extract energy from biomass while producing minimal waste

The endeavor was somewhat of a challenge, admit researchers, as very little is understood within the larger scientific community about how to effectively turn biomass into usable energy. But after tinkering around with the chemistry a bit, the researchers involved with the new project learned that polyoxometalate (POM), the catalyst used, responds well to light and heat.

"If you mix the biomass and catalyst at room temperature, they will not react," says Deng. "But when you expose them to light or heat, the reaction begins. The POM introduces an intermediate step because biomass cannot be directly accessed by oxygen."

Though still in its infancy, the technology holds considerable promise for expanding the role that biomass and other organic compounds play in fuel cell technology, especially since this latest development utilizes natural processes to generate energy with minimal waste. Even in its current iteration, this solar-based energy conversion process is already much further along than even the most efficient microbe-based conversion technologies available.

"I believe this type of fuel cell could have an energy output similar to that of methanol fuel cells in the future," adds Deng, noting that the 0.72 milliwatts per square centimeter of power density produced from the biomass is almost 100 times higher than existing cellulose-based microbial fuel cells. "To optimize the system, we need to have a better understanding of the chemical processes involved and how to improve them."

You can view a complete abstract of the study for free at:

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