How Biodiesel Fuel-Cells Could Power The Future (And Your Car)

biodiesel, fuel cell, microreactor, hydrogen, vegetable oil, technology, Innovatek

[social_buttons] After years of development, the Washington-based company InnovaTek is testing a hand-sized microreactor that can convert virtually any liquid fuel into hydrogen, producing a portable hydrogen stream for use in adjoining fuel-cells.

Since the microreactor units can be linked together, InnovaTek has developed systems capable of producing anywhere from 1 to 160 gallons of hydrogen per minute—enough to supply a hydrogen refueling station or, even more exciting, creating on-board hydrogen for fuel-cell powered vehicles.

That’s InnovaTek’s eventual goal anyway: having their technology built into cars, where energy-dense renewable fuels could be converted into motion, bypassing combustion and the production of exhaust gases entirely, and powering a much more efficient engine. (Imagine for a moment, filling up on biodiesel and driving off to the exhaust-free hum of an electric motor.) InnovaTek plans on commercially licensing the microreactors by 2009.

Weighing less than one pound, the square piece of shiny steel (pictured above) houses an array of microchannels containing patented catalytic sites. Each microtube helps convert (or reform) a continuous stream of hydrogen from fuels like gasoline, diesel, vegetable oil, biodiesel, propane, natural gas, even the glycerol byproduct from biodiesel manufacturing.

While hydrogen produced by the device has been lauded as the “energy of the future,” it faces major developmental issues. Hydrogen is not a great energy carrier. It has a relatively low energy density, it’s difficult and dangerous to transport, and finding a way to store it on-board in hydrogen-powered vehicles has proven difficult (the first Mercedes F-cell had a range of only 110 miles). The refueling infrastructure is also non-existent.

Even more to the point, we haven’t yet established a renewable source of energy to produce hydrogen.

But that hasn’t stopped us from building hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars. GM, Ford, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota all have prototypes in the works, and Mercedes already released their subcompact F cell in late 2007.

Taking all this into consideration, Innovatek’s reactor could revolutionize the energy and transportation infrastructure of the country.

Innovatek has already signed a $500,000 joint development agreement with Chevron to pursue fuel processing technology for hydrogen refueling stations. (If you think that’s big, in Sept. ’06 the Navy also awarded Innovatek with a $1.8 million contract to develop portable recharging systems for equipment Marines typically carry by foot.) One of Innovatek’s chief board members commented on their ability to reduce the cost of hydrogen generation: “The smaller system size, reduced catalyst volume, and more efficient process that is realized with InnovaTek’s technology represents another significant step in moving the hydrogen economy from science to commercial reality,” he said.

While InnovTtek’s reactor can run on a variety of non-renewable hydrocarbon sources they, like the potentially revolutionary Coskata Biofuels, are expressly interested in sustainable power, even to the point of preferring biodiesel in their test runs. Innovatek also said that biodiesel just plain works better: it contains fewer impurities and reforms at lower temperatures than petrodiesel.

Now let me beat naysayers to the punch here: no way are we going to power all of America’s cars on biodiesel, even using this kind of technology. I’m also interested in investigating what byproducts the microreactor produces and how they would be collected and used. But without being able to write off algae biodiesel or other majorly productive feedstocks as potential solutions, and based on the inherent coolness of this device, I think we could all be cautiously optimistic.

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Sources:

InnovaTek, Inc. (see “Press Releases”)

Biodiesel Magazine (Mar. 2008): Power Without the Burn

Grainnet (Mar. 17, 08): InnovaTek Introduces New Fuel Cell Processor Technology That Favors Biodiesel

Via: Biodiesel Magazine

Photo Credit: InnovaTek

 

Clayton

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.