Fuel Cells are popular because they present the potential to power cars, airplanes, and other machines without burning coal, oil, or natural gas without using petroleum based energy. It’s necessary to remind people that fuel cells are a type of battery, they don’t actually generate renewable energy so they must receive power from another source. Charging a fuel cell or another battery from a wall outlet might actually cause more pollution depending on where the power is generated. The main advantage of fuel cells is that they can store power which is generated by many different types of sources.
Conventional fuel cells operate with a reaction that uses up elemental hydrogen. Although hydrogen in its pure form is present in outer space, it is extremely rare and unlikely to find any elemental hydrogen on the Earth. The hydrogen must be reduced from another source such as water before it can be used in a battery, which uses energy. As with other types of machinery, the natural environment provides some models of useful systems that have evolved over periods of millions of years. Since animals and plants that are not efficient die out, these systems are much more efficient than previous competitors and even some machines that humans have designed. According to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a bacteria based fuel cell can be ten times as efficient as a hydrogen based fuel cell. Bacterial fuel cells also are not reliant on elemental hydrogen, since it rarely exists on Earth. They can use other materials, even waste products like pig manure and sewage, according to Science Daily.
Also known as microbial fuel cells, since microbes include bacteria, the effectiveness of these devices is already proven. Researchers at Penn State demonstrate that a bacteria based fuel cell can convert waste from a toilet into a reliable source of energy. Although this early demonstration project in 2004 did not produce a large amount of energy, it demonstrates that the concept is possible, and will produce a large amount of energy when scaled up. One goal of ARPA-E is to provide federal grants to companies who submit proposals which show that they can scale up this process and produce large amounts of energy, as part of ARPA-E’s electrofuels grant program. The naval research center, ONR, demonstrated that bacteria found in wastewater and mud are capable of generating energy as part of a microbial fuel cell.
The federal government funds battery research technology through Arpa-E grants. Project selections include the development of magnesium ion batteries by the company Pellion Technologies, according to Arpa-E. This type of battery is a new technology that potentially creates much more cost effective batteries for hybrid cars and other vehicles. Cost limitations of battery systems are one of the main factors holding back renewable energy generation.
The Arpa-E grants provide several million dollars in research funding for each project, including matching funds that the grantee company invests in developing new technologies. According to Representative Anna Eshoo, the federal government is awarding $3,204,080 to Pellion Technologies to create the magnesium ion batteries. This investment may provide much higher payoffs, depending on the cost savings from switching to this type of battery. In addition, since a California company controls this patent, the company may receive additional income from licensing magnesium ion technology to companies in other countries such as Germany and France, providing additional tax revenues to the California and federal government.
This is a joint project between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bar Ilan University. The chemist Dr. Doron Aurbach publishes articles in the field of magnesium ion technology, including common flaws in the technology and methods to improve it. Magnesium provides the cathode for the battery, and as a relatively common metal it is cheaper and easier to obtain than the rare earth metals that are requirements of other technologies. In addition, magnesium is found in many locations, so supply restrictions from hostile nations are not a major concern. Magnesium is also an important dietary mineral, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The America COMPETES Act allocates federal money for scientific research programs. The recent legislation reauthorizes this act for 2010. This is good news, since it continues funding in several high tech areas, such as nanotechnology and fusion power. It continues funding to existing sustainable energy research programs such as the ARPA-E grants.
Nanotechnology is one of the areas that this act subsidizes. This includes manufacturing support, as well as environmental and health studies. A problem known as “grey goo” that appears in science fiction stories involves self replicating nanomachines that continue replicating until they destroy the environment. The act provides funding into research about the ethics of nanotechnology and its impact on health and society.
The Act may provide funding into fusion power technology. According to Representative John Garamendi, he has added language that will provide funds for fusion power research. Fusion power research is in the news lately. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are testing a large scale project that uses an array of high power lasers to heat particles up to millions of degrees.
This act includes additional funding to ARPA-E. Earlier articles mentioned the ARPA-E projects in the first two rounds of funding. Extending this act over several years provides grant money for similar green technology projects. Additionally, new organizations called energy innovation hubs will receive funding, according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These are partnerships between university and corporate researchers that design and implement the solar, wind, fusion, and other types of power sources that are developed.