Published 23/03/13 – If you’d like to unplug from the grid, Curtis Berlinguette and his colleagues could have the machine for you.
The University of Calgary chemists are working on a “FireWater” fuel device, about half the size of a fridge, to deliver renewable, carbon-free electricity around the clock.
While it will be at least a couple of years before FireWater is energizing houses near you, the scientists’ patented new process is being held up as a “game changer” for renewable energy.
It uses a new breed of chemical catalysts that the Alberta team has discovered and describes in the journal Science on Thursday.
The researchers say the catalysts promise to slash the cost of storing solar and wind energy until it is needed to power the television, start the dishwasher or recharge the smartphone.
“Storage is the elephant in the room for renewables,” says team co-leader Curtis Berlinguette, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Energy Conversion. “Wind and solar, their growth is being constrained by the lack of a viable storage mechanisms.”
Batteries are still too bulky to store energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow. And electrolyzers, which can also store the energy, are still too costly for widespread use.
Berlinguette and his colleagues say their catalysts could cut the cost of electrolyzers in half.
They report that their new compounds work as well as, if not better than, the expensive crystalline catalysts now at the heart of electrolyzers. These rare and often toxic metals, such as iridium and ruthenium, can cost more than $1,000 a gram.
The new catalysts cost “just pennies” a gram. They are “disordered” mixtures made from compounds like iron oxide, or rust, that has been “doped” with metals like nickel and cobalt.
“When you have disorder, you have defects and these tend to want to heal themselves,” says chemist Simon Trudel, explaining how the mixtures make for “more reactive” catalysts.
To power houses, the plan is to feed electricity produced by solar or wind energy systems into electrolyzers in the home, which would then convert the power into chemical energy that would be stored until needed.
The new catalysts, which will be used to coat electrodes inside the electrolyzers, will help drive the reactions that split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen, a potent fuel, can be readily stored and can be reconverted back to electricity as needed.
The researchers say the only byproduct of the process is water, which can be recycled through the system.
Berlinguette and Trudel say their discovery opens up a new “arena” for making thousands of inexpensive catalysts.
“It’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” Berlinguette says of the Science paper that describes a few of catalysts they have created. “We’ve tested over a 1,000 in our lab so far.”
The researchers have patented their technology and started FireWater Fuel Corp. to exploit it.
They foresee large-scale applications for storing energy at wind and solar farms, as well as small-scale applications to help homeowners get off the electricity grid.
The scientists say a typical house would require an electrolyzer about the half the size of fridge. It would contain a few litres of water and produce a couple of kilograms of hydrogen a day, enough to generate the electricity needed to keep a household humming.
They hope to have a household unit, costing about $10,000, ready for testing by 2015. To get off the grid, a house would also need to have solar panels or some form renewable energy system to create electricity to feed into the electrolyzer.