Technology breakthrough fuels laptops and phones, recharges scientist's 60-year career

Feb 17, 2011

How does a scientist fuel his enthusiasm for chemistry after 60 years? By discovering a new energy source, of course.

This week, SiGNa Chemistry Inc. unveiled its new hydrogen cartridges, which provide energy to fuel cells designed to recharge cell phones, laptops and GPS units. The green power source is geared toward outdoor enthusiasts as well as residents of the Third World, where electricity in homes is considered a luxury.

"SiGNa has created an inherently-safe solution to produce electric power, resulting in an eco-friendly and cost-effective portable solution," said Michael Lefenfeld, SiGNa's CEO.

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The spark for this groundbreaking technology came from James Dye's Michigan State University laboratory. Dye, University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, and his work with alkali metals led to a green process to harness the power of sodium silicide, which is the source for SiGNa's new product.

"In our lab, we were able to produce alkali metal silicides, which basically are made from sodium and silicon, which in turn, are produced from salt and sand," Dye said. "By adding water to sodium silicide, we're able to produce hydrogen, which creates energy for fuel cells. The , sodium silicate, is also green. It's the same stuff found in toothpaste."

SiGNa was able to build on Dye's research and develop a power platform that produces low-pressure on demand, convert it to electricity via a low-cost fuel cell and emit simple .

Dye, the co-founder of SiGNa and director of its scientific council, said that making the jump to research the company's products was a small one.

"I've been working with alkali metals for 50 years," he said. "My research was closely related to what SiGNa was looking for. So when they came to me with their idea, it was a relatively easy adaptation to make."

Dye came to MSU in 1953 — two years before MSU was a university. Based on the products that can be linked to Dye's research just in the last year, it's clear that he is reaping the rewards of his six decades of scientific sowing.

Using a similar process, Dye was able to assist the creation of a fuel source to power electric bicycles. The , developed by SiGNa's partners, ranges in size from 1 watt to 3 kilowatts and is capable of pushing a bicycle up to 25 mph for approximately 100 miles.

While the mainstream attention of his work is rewarding, it's the untamed excitement of daily discovery and being able to share it with his students that fuel Dye's desire to maintain a full-time research schedule.

"Instilling that excitement about chemistry in my undergraduate students and giving them a jump on their graduate research is my reward," Dye said. "Everyone who has come through the lab and gone on to graduate school has had glowing reviews on how this experience helped their career."

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User comments : 13

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5 / 5 (4) Feb 17, 2011
When do we see a real product?
2.9 / 5 (7) Feb 17, 2011
So this "device" is a store of chemical energy (but will evolve H2 rather than electricity directly. Coupled with all the other stuff it's analogous to a primary battery, or by itself it's a little (relatively safe?) canister of hydrogen. What is the effective density of the stored H2? Curious how it compares to commonly used metal hydride batteries.
1.6 / 5 (7) Feb 17, 2011
The last 5 years there were some interesting discoveries that could lead to better batteries... yet we see nothing... -.-
1.8 / 5 (4) Feb 17, 2011
so he uses this material to produce hydrogen via chemical reaction? This is a much larger breakthrough, if it is economical for laptops, then it is economical for large scale power production (or does it consume a lot of power to produce the material? Couldn't some method of self-assembly assist in this regard if so?)
1 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2011
Can you reverse the process and make silicide from silicate in an eco-friendly way ?? IIRC, like calcium carbide, you must fuse the pure elements, and they don't come so cleanly...
4.3 / 5 (4) Feb 17, 2011
Exactly, production is likely to require lot's of energy.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2011
Scalable yes, also mentioned was a 25KW product to power bicycles! That said, could cars be far behind. Hey, the thing has to be light enuf to go on a bike that may have to be carried, and go a hundred miles to boot. Loooka lika we gotta a go joooose producer.
3 / 5 (4) Feb 18, 2011
I have flagged your comment as abusive QC, I hope it is removed. This is a nice idea but practically what size of product are we looking at? Is it reusable?
1 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2011
This reminds me of the gas generators used to make acetylene gas by dipping carbide in water. The gas generator would have a floating lid with the piece of carbide attached, so whenever there was enough gas under the lid it would lift the carbide out of the water and stop.

Put simply, this invention contains 9.5% hydrogen per weight, yielding a gross energy density of 3.1 kWh per kilogram. That is comparable to electric batteries at 0.2 kWh/kg and gasoline at roughly 11 kWh/kg.

Not all of that energy is recoverable in all cases. In automotive use, this would return about 1.55 kWh/kg while gasoline would do 3.6 kWh/kg and batteries would still do 0.2 kWh/kg - perhaps 0.5 kWh/kg in ten years if we're incredibly lucky.

The problem is, that producing silicon from sand alone costs about 13 kWh per kilogram. Unless the reduction from sodium silicate to silicide is far far easier, this thing will be a dead duck.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2011
However, it is unclear whether they calculated the fact that sodium silicide in itself doesn't contain hydrogen, but simply catalyzes it from water.

If they didn't take the amount of water required into the calculation, then the figures should be halved, since the silicide almost doubles in weight when it turns into silicate. The whole system gets lighter though since the water that is carried gets consumed and the mass of hydrogen is expelled.
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 19, 2011
The guy has 50 years experiance in chemistry so
I think its designed to be rechargable (reversable reaction) Probably using eletricity and there are tons of silicon metal in the computers ect thrown away each year. For those who never study the hydrogen comes from the water (H2O) added to the sodium silicide because oxygen (also in water) attaches itself to the sodium silicide leaving the hydrogen free to drift off as a gas and producing sodium silicate.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2011
Now this is a break through I will be interested in investing in.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2011
Nowaday there are too much emphasis on marketing hyperboles than real, present and ready to market hardware. I won't hold my breath until I can get it from Walmart. Until then, this "breakthrough" is the same like numerous claims I have read over the last 10 years in fuel cells and energ storage technology. Damn it, I have to go to recharge my laptop, and change the batteries in my gf's vibrators..!

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