Bio-fuel Cells

by Richard T. Stuebi

Earlier this month, here in Ohio, the fuel cell developer Technology Management Inc. issued a press release that it had succesfully operated its 1 kw solid oxide fuel cell stack on vegetable oil from soybeans. As reported on the Internet, it is claimed that this is the first instance of a solid oxide fuel cell running on vegetable oil, and that this development could break open the market for fuel cells in the developing world.

This does seem to be an innovation of merit. I have no reason to doubt the assertion, but I’m curious if any of our readers know of other examples of biofuels in fuel cells.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

6 replies
  1. Charles
    Charles says:

    While TMI’s demonstration is to be warmly congratulated, the company claims already to have fuel cells that “run on natural gas, JP-8 kerosene, propane, and most recently, diesel. In rural areas, TMI systems can operate on renewable bio-derived fuels, including ethanol, digester gas, ammonia, and vegetable oil.”Chemically there is nothing inherently special about a bio-fuel; rather it is its source that distinguishes it.If anything, biofuels tend to be lower in sulfur than oil-derived fuels. Sulfur is well known to be poison to catalysts, and is therefore problematic in many fuel cells.Many fuel cells run, or could easily run, on bio-fuels. Several types of fuel cells run on methanol, which used to be called wood alcohol because it was once produced chiefly as a by-product of the destructive distillation of wood.Methanol can be fed to a proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell directly without being reformed, as in a direct methanol fuel cell. PEM systems that use reformed methanol have also been developed.Direct-ethanol fuel cells have been developed, as have reformed ethanol fuel cells. It has been said that ethanol is the ideal fuel for a fuel cell. Work was done in 1996 to show this ( acid (methanoic acid) can be used in direct-formic acid fuel cells. Its name comes from the Latin word for ant, formica, referring to its early isolation by the distillation of ant bodies, although distillation of ants doesn’t sound like the answer to the world’s energy challenges.Methane gas is widely used in solid oxide fuel cells and molten carbonate fuel cells. Methane is also known as ‘marsh gas’, produced by microbes in swamps and landfill. Although most widely encountered as the principal component of natural gas, it could also be considered a biofuel.Solid oxide fuel cells run at high temperatures and are relatively tolerant of variations in feedstocks. They can be used to scrub solvents from paint booth extraction systems, for example. As such, they would seem promising for running on the bio-fuels with higher molecular weights, such as vegetable oils, and this is what TMI seems to have done.If one is prepared to reform the fuel prior to feeding it into the fuel cell, then almost any fuel that is ‘rich in hydrogen’ is potentially useful, and could be used in many types of fuel cell. This has been done for many years to allow fuel cells to run on ‘pump gasoline’.Although the use of biofuel as a feedstock is technically not especially remarkable, TMI’s achievement is interesting from the perspective of the future it gives. It breaks the fixation with running fuel cells on hydrogen, which, all things considered, is a rather problematic fuel. Rather it points to the use of crop derived liquid fuels to generate electricity in solid oxide fuel cells. These inherently have a hot exhaust that can be harnessed for water and space heating in a CHP system that’s potentially both sustainable and efficient. Charles Lee4D Cleantec

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