Solar-induced hybrid fuel cell produces electricity directly from biomass


Although low temperature fuel cells powered by methanol or hydrogen have been well studied, existing low temperature fuel cell technologies cannot directly use biomass as a fuel because of the lack of an effective catalyst system for polymeric materials.

Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of low-temperature fuel cell that directly converts biomass to electricity with assistance from a catalyst activated by solar or thermal energy. The hybrid fuel cell can use a wide variety of biomass sources, including starch, cellulose, lignin – and even switchgrass, powdered wood, algae and waste from poultry processing.

The device could be used in small-scale units to provide electricity for developing nations, as well as for larger facilities to provide power where significant quantities of biomass are available.

“We have developed a new method that can handle the biomass at room temperature, and the type of biomass that can be used is not restricted – the process can handle nearly any type of biomass,” said Yulin Deng, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology (IPST). “This is a very generic approach to utilizing many kinds of biomass and organic waste to produce electrical power without the need for purification of the starting materials.”

The new solar-induced direct biomass-to-electricity hybrid fuel cell was described February 7, 2014, in the journal Nature Communications.

The challenge for biomass fuel cells is that the carbon-carbon bonds of the biomass – a natural polymer – cannot be easily broken down by conventional catalysts, including expensive precious metals, Deng noted. To overcome that challenge, scientists have developed microbial fuel cells in which microbes or enzymes break down the biomass. But that process has many drawbacks: power output from such cells is limited, microbes or enzymes can only selectively break down certain types of biomass, and the microbial system can be deactivated by many factors.

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