Spontaneous ignition discovery has ORNL researcher fired up

Apr 19, 2005

Zhiyu Hu believes it is possible to match nature's highly efficient method to convert chemicals into thermal energy at room temperature, and he has data and a published paper to support his theory.
In a paper scheduled to appear in the May 18 print issue of the American Chemical Society's Energy & Fuels, Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Hu describes a novel method to achieve spontaneous ignition and sustained combustion at room temperature. He achieves this "nano-catalytic reaction" with nothing but nanometer-sized particles of platinum stuck to fibers of glass wool in a small jar with methanol and air – with no source of external ignition.

Although this began as little more than a curiosity, Hu quickly realized that the implications could be significant because of the potential gains in energy conversion and utilization. Hu now cites possibilities in the area of distributed power generation and perhaps military and homeland defense.

While additional research needs to be performed to understand the phenomena, Hu notes that natural organisms such as microbes, plants and animals obtain energy from oxidation of the same organic chemicals at their physiological, or body, temperatures. Many of these biological reactions also use metals as part of their enzyme catalysts. Still, this is a surprising result in the field of metal catalysis.

"Since the caveman days, we have burned things to utilize their energy, and the high temperatures and the entire process have created a lot of problems that we're then forced to deal with," said Hu, a physicist in the Life Sciences Division of the Department of Energy's ORNL.

Citing the wisdom of one of the all-time great scientists, Hu noted that Albert Einstein once said, "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." So, according to Hu, the best way to solve the energy crisis is to replace our existing fuel consuming method with one that has much higher efficiency and less environmental impact.

Indeed, there is room for efficiency improvement, Hu said, noting that an internal combustion engine is only about 21 percent efficient. The process also creates environmental concerns because of nitrogen oxide emissions that form because of the high combustion temperatures. Even an advanced fuel cell is only about 50 percent efficient, and it must be operated at a temperature that is much higher than our body or room temperature, which requires costly components able to withstand harsh conditions.

"What we have is the possibility of retrieving energy at a lower temperature with greater efficiency and lower environmental effects," Hu said.

The method outlined in the paper "Nano-catalytic spontaneous ignition and self-supporting room-temperature combustion," co-written by ORNL's Vassil Boiadjiev and Thomas Thundat, was discovered unintentionally. Hu was actually conducting another experiment with platinum particles, methanol and cotton swabs when he noticed the mixture produced smoke. He consulted with Thundat and others who encouraged him to figure out what was happening.

"This wasn't research that was funded, so I worked evenings and weekends to try to understand why and how this happened," Hu said. He replicated the discovery numerous times under different conditions and noticed that the reactions can reach high temperatures of greater than 600 degrees Celsius and low temperatures of just a few tenths of a degree above room temperature.

Hu also learned that he can control the reaction by varying the fuel-air mixture, and he discovered that the process can be dramatically changed by reducing the particle size and changing the particle's morphology, or shape.

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Explore further: Nano-capsules designed for diagnosing malignant tumours

Related Stories

Polysis is marketing a plastic that turns to clay

May 16, 2015

Polysis is showing a plastic that can turn to clay when heated, according to a story on DigInfo TV. Polysis is described as a specialist developer of polyurethane resins and resin products, and they are marketing haplafreely, presented with a lower- ...

What would it take to limit climate change to 1.5 C?

17 hours ago

Limiting temperature rise by 2100 to less than 1.5°C is feasible, at least from a purely technological standpoint, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers at the ...

Scientists announce top 10 new species for 2015

17 hours ago

A cartwheeling spider, a bird-like dinosaur and a fish that wriggles around on the sea floor to create a circular nesting site are among the species identified by the SUNY College of Environmental Science ...

Recommended for you

Non-aqueous solvent supports DNA nanotechnology

9 hours ago

Scientists around the world are using the programmability of DNA to assemble complex nanometer-scale structures. Until now, however, production of these artificial structures has been limited to water-based ...

Nanosilver and the future of antibiotics

10 hours ago

Precious metals like silver and gold have biomedical properties that have been used for centuries, but how do these materials effectively combat the likes of cancer and bacteria without contaminating the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.