Chemical engineers invent portable hydrogen reactor for fuel cells

May 23, 2011

Chemical Engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology are transforming the way that American soldiers power their battery-operated devices by making a small change: a really small change. Capitalizing on the unique properties of microscale systems, the students have invented a microreactor that converts everyday fossil fuels like propane and butane into pure hydrogen for fuel cell batteries. These batteries are not only highly efficient, but also can be replenished with hydrogen again and again for years of resilient performance in the field.

With batteries consuming a substantial amount of a soldier's gear weight, the Army has a high interest in replacing the current paradigm of single-use batteries with a reliable, reusable power source. The Stevens-made microreactors thus have the potential to not only reduce waste from disposable batteries, but also provide American soldiers with a dependable way to recharge the batteries for the critical devices that keep them safe.

Current methods for generating fuel cell hydrogen are both sophisticated and risky, requiring and a vacuum to produce the necessary chemical-reaction-causing plasmas. Once in a container, hydrogen is a highly volatile substance that is dangerous and expensive to transport.

The Stevens overcomes both of these barriers by using low temperatures and , and by only as needed to avoid creating explosive targets in combat areas. These advanced reactors are created using cutting-edge microfabrication techniques, similar to those used to create plasma television screens, which use microscale physics to produce plasma under normal atmospheres.

The team has already had success producing hydrogen from methanol. After gasifying methanol by suspending it in hot , the mixture is drawn into a 25µm channel in the microreactor. There, it reacts with plasma to cause thermal decomposition, breaking down the methanol into its elemental components. Now the team is conducting tests to see what kind of yields are realizable from various starter fuels. Eventually, soldiers will be able to convert everyday liquid fuels like propane or butane, commonly found on military bases, into high-potency juice for portable fuel cell batteries.

Explore further: Team pioneers strategy for creating new materials

Provided by Stevens Institute of Technology

3.9 /5 (9 votes)

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krundoloss
3.7 / 5 (3) May 23, 2011
Why is it that every single innovation that mankind can conceive is immediately put to use to fight wars. We all imagine a nice bright future, but we will never catch up to the military, who will always be 20 years ahead of civilians.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (2) May 23, 2011
It's because the military is constantly seeking an advantage over it's potential opponents.That is what caused aviation,for example,to advance by leaps and bounds in the world wars of the 20th century.
Yellowdart
5 / 5 (2) May 23, 2011
That and the military doesn't care about economic viability or selling the product. They just want to use it to win.
PPihkala
not rated yet May 23, 2011
Military doesn't care so much if your innovation is expensive if it gives them edge over others. So use by military might give that innovation it's needed initial customer so that it can get past those rough starting phases. Then when it has matured, it might be viable for civilian use also.
mmead
not rated yet May 24, 2011
so wait, is the military then actively using fuel cells? I thought reliable fuel cells were not quite invented yet...
wwqq
not rated yet May 24, 2011
so wait, is the military then actively using fuel cells? I thought reliable fuel cells were not quite invented yet...


Oh, we've had reliable fuel cells since the 60's at least. The apollo programme used fuel cells.

The power density was pretty pitiful and the amount of platinum used fairly ridiculous, and they were fairly inefficient and they weren't very durable; but you could rely on them to work without fail within their designed operating conditions and lifetime.