Tiny Fuel Cell May Power Portable Electronics

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"We have been able to find a chemical mixture that produces 6.7 weight percent hydrogen, and this is an important benchmark," said Arvind Varma, who led the research. Varma heads the School of Chemical Engineering at Purdue.

The 6.7 percent figure means that for every 100 grams of mixture, the scientists were able to produce 6.7 grams of hydrogen. Varma says his team hopes to increase the yield to about 10 percent through additional experiments.

Hydrogen Cartridges

The researchers envision that pellets of hydrogen-releasing material could be stored in credit card-size cartridges. Consumers could buy a fuel cartridge in a store for their mobile phone, laptop, digital camera, or PDA.

Users would install the cartridge in their electronic device, which would also contain a fuel cell and a rechargeable battery. When the stored energy of the battery dropped below a certain threshold, the processor would ignite combustion of one pellet. This would generate hydrogen, feeding the fuel cell, which in turn would produce electrical energy to recharge the battery.

"Now you can forget about recharging your battery and plugging into the electrical network," Shafirovich said. "All you need is to install a new cartridge when all pellets have been used."

While the technology would not eliminate the need for batteries, battery sizes could become much smaller.

The breakthrough may have important applications in portable electronics for soldiers and for equipment in spacecraft and submarines.

Nothing Toxic

No one knows how many portable electronic devices exist worldwide, but conservative estimates place the number at more than a billion.

The new technology could have important environmental benefits, because electronics users would no longer have to plug into a common 110- or 220-volt electrical network.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than half of the electricity consumed in the United States comes from coal-fired power plants, which are sources of smog, greenhouse gases, and mercury pollution.

"If hydrogen were to be produced from renewable sources, it will be great for the environment as there will be no pollutants," said Rakesh Agrawal, a Purdue chemical engineering professor who was not involved in the project.

Varma, the research team leader, says the products of the hydrogen reaction in his team's new fuel cell are environmentally benign and nontoxic.

The findings were presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C. They will be detailed in the journal Combustion and Flame.

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