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Catalothermionic Generator: A New Blend of Solar and Fuel Cell Nanotechnology Produces Electricity

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…it’s like hydrogen and the Sun are related in a way… the star’s energy comes from burnt hydrogen, on one hand, and on the other, here on Earth, solar cells are the best means of generating hydrogen out of water and have it used as an energy source. There’s an interesting symmetry between the two.

Anyway, there’s a scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who developed a kind of battery that’s somewhere in between solar cells and fuel cells. Eduard Karpov, assistant professor of civil and materials engineering, even received a $217,000 grant from the National Science foundation to further develop the battery he calls “catalothermionic generator.”

Karpov’s device uses a technology called “chemovoltaics,” that uses a film-like catalytic metal surface which harnesses energy from the oxidization of hydrogen. Unlike classic fuel cells, the chemovoltaic process doesn’t release nor absorb heat, fact which allows it to run much cooler than ordinary fuel cells. Just like fuel cells, though, the only byproduct of this device is water.

“This device is the child of the nanotechnology era,” Karpov said. “It consists of nano-thickness layers of catalytic material on top of semiconductor substrates. “We know the basic physics, but utilizing it for an energy application is a new idea,” he also mentioned.

Of course, this is only the beginning of research in this area and with this approach. For the future, Karpov adn his team from UIC will test and vary the sizes of the different catalysts they can use: platinum (expensive), palladium, various oxides. They will also tune the thickness and of the material and try different shapes until they get maximum performance out of the device.

“Our main task is to show that this phenomenon, in principle, can lead to a commercially viable technology that has the potential to compete with fuel cells,” he said.

The appearance of other kinds of hydrogen fuel cells increases the market competition, so today’s most important manufacturers will struggle to get to the most efficient one in the shortest time possible. That will happen, of course, when the technology will have been developed and thoroughly tested in military purposes, in a first phase.

[via ecofriend/newswise]

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