Chemical engineers invent portable hydrogen reactor for fuel cells

May 23, 2011, Stevens Institute of Technology

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: Army looks to hydrogen to lighten soldiers' load

Related Stories

Army looks to hydrogen to lighten soldiers' load

March 27, 2008

Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology are developing a portable, hydrogen-generating power system to power everything from laptops to communications gear for soldiers in the battlefield.

An uncommon influence for a research paper

May 11, 2010

( -- An article written in 2004 by a Lehigh engineering professor and his former student has received more citations than any publication in its field, according to a company that analyzes the influence of research ...

Ceramic microreactors developed for on-site hydrogen production

September 19, 2006

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have designed and built ceramic microreactors for the on-site reforming of hydrocarbon fuels, such as propane, into hydrogen for use in fuel cells and other portable ...

Recommended for you

Spore formation model could advance medicine

February 21, 2018

Michigan State University scientists have produced experimental and modeling results that shed light on how a particular type of enzyme functions during spore formation, potentially advancing human health and disease research.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.

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.