Tiny technology offers potent solution for military, industry
It's petite yet powerful.
Researchers, with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have developed a potentially high-energy microscale power system that can be used as an alternative to conventional batteries for microelectronic devices crucial to America's military troops. The heart of the system is a revolutionary fuel reformer--the world's smallest catalytic fuel processor--developed by Battelle researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The tiny reactor, the size of a pencil eraser, is coupled with a microscale fuel cell. The complete package is expected to be about the same dimensions as a cigarette lighter, and produce power equivalent to small batteries but with one-third the weight.
Within the reformer, hydrogen is stripped from a hydrocarbon fuel, such as methanol, and the resulting hydrogen-rich gas is delivered to the fuel cell. The fuel cell then generates electricity by converting the hydrogen--and oxygen from the air--into electrical power and clean water.
"Our miniaturized fuel processor incorporates several chemical processes and operations in one device," said Evan Jones, principal investigator of the fuel processing technology. This complete chemical processing plant holds two vaporizers, a heat exchanger, a catalytic combustor and a steam reformer, all scaled down from the conventional operations occupying several acres.
When ready for final deployment, the military envisions many useful applications for this emerging energy-generating technology. According to Terry Doherty, director of PNNL's U.S. Department of Defense programs, miniature sensors powered by the same technology could be scattered before advancing troops to monitor ground vibrations or detect dangerous toxic agents, relaying this information electronically to soldiers.
And because the hydrogen power source is produced only as needed, there is no need to store or carry a supply of the volatile gas, reducing risk and creating a lighter load for transportation.
Testing has revealed that performance from the reformer and fuel cell prototype is impressive. Researchers suggest that with additional system efficiencies and improvements, even greater performance may be achievable. Development now will focus on creating a deployable system suitable for military use or industrial applications. Potential industrial uses might include manufacturing and other production processes. For more information on catalysis and reaction engineering work, as well as microchemical and thermal systems, see http://www.pnl.gov/cbpd/.