Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing miniaturized high output fuel cells for military applications.
“Our miniaturized fuel processor incorporates several chemical processes and operations in one device,” said Evan Jones, PNNL principal investigator. The fuel processor system contains two vaporizers, a heat exchanger, a catalytic combustor and a steam reformer, all within a compact package no larger than a dime.
When ready for final deployment, the military envisions many useful applications for this emerging miniaturized energy-generating technology. According to Terry Doherty, director of PNNL’s Department of Defense programs, soldiers could power personal, lightweight cooling systems while wearing protective suits and gear, prolonging their own comfort and efficiency during a reconnaissance.
“Vital personal communications devices could function for extended periods without the added weight of bulky, inefficient batteries,” Doherty said. He added that miniature sensors powered by the same technology could be scattered before advancing troops to monitor ground vibrations or detect dangerous toxic agents and relay this information electronically to soldiers. This technology broadens the possibilities for using self-sustaining items such as mobile devices in remote or difficult-to-access locations.
While methanol has proved to be the most effective fuel source, other liquid fuels such as butane, jet fuel — also known as JP-8 — or even diesel may be used. And, because the hydrogen power source is only produced as needed, there is no need to store or carry the volatile gas, reducing risk and creating a lighter load.
Testing has revealed that performance from the reformer and fuel cell prototype is impressive. “This system can produce an equivalent power (20 mW) to batteries, but at one-third the weight,” Jones said. Similar micro fuel cell systems with greater power output (50 W) currently under development are providing power equal to that of batteries weighing 10 times as much. Researchers suggest that with additional system efficiencies and improvements, even greater performance may be achievable. Development will now focus on creating a deployable system suitable for military use or industrial application.
High electric power output lightweight mini fuel cells would have many civilian applications as well. For example, workers in hot desert oil fields could wear cooling suits with lightweight backpack fuel cells that would allow them to work for longer periods outdoors. A former Bechtel worker who worked in Saudi Arabia once told me how they would work outside for a half hour and then come into a cooled mobile home for a half hour of recovery. This cycle of half hour on and half hour off was how they worked all day in Saudi Arabian oil fields where temperatures could approach 120 Fahrenheit or even hotter.
Construction workers in any really hot environments would find cooler suits incredibly useful as productivity enhancers. Also, if the energy of a fuel cell can be used to cool it certainly can be used to warm a suit as well. Therefore, oil field workers in extreme cold environments could wear heater suits powered by mini fuel cells.
One problem with the use of fossil fuel powered fuel cells is that they produce carbon dioxide and possibly other pollutants whose build-up indoors could be a health problem. But in outdoor applications that gaseous build-up wouldn't be a problem.
Portable fuel cells would have a lot of great uses in hiking and camping trips. They could provide heat for stoves, electricity to power light fixtures, and electricity for communications, computers, and other applications in remote locations.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2003 April 07 03:14 PM Energy Tech|