Out of Poland comes an alternative fuel and fuel cell. The fuel chosen is formic acid and the fuel cell runs at room temperature.

A room temperature operation seizes attention; formic acid makes for a set of questions.

Dr. Andrzej Borodziński at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw (IPC PAS) notes some worthwhile points.  The biggest obstacle to marketing of hydrogen fuels is the storage of hydrogen.  The obstacle remains extremely technologically challenging and still is waiting for satisfactory solutions.  Methanol, an alternative to fuel cells powered by pure hydrogen is toxic and the methanol powered fuel cells produce low power and are operated at a relatively high and so potentially hazardous temperatures at or beyond 90º C.  Neither produces power in a consumer friendly small appliance package of great desirability.

As the technology sits today the best present fuel cells, powered by hydrogen, reach up to 60% in scaleable operation. For comparison, the efficiency of low-compression engines is as low as 20%.

Fuel cells theoretical efficiency of converting chemical energy into electric power can reach even one hundred percent.  There is hardly a consumer portable electronics user who isn’t irritated by problems with power supply. The batteries run out quickly and require continuous replacements or take a long time charging.

The IPC PAS has a developed new catalyst they believe will enable a widespread use of fuel cells. Room temperature operation is a very good start.  They’re suggesting the new fuel cell will be cheap, durable, lightweight and environmentally friendly powered by formic acid.

The IPC PAS group is claiming the efficiency and power of their fuel cells are clearly higher than those powered by methanol.  To make it work the group has developed an efficient and durable catalyst.

Dr. Borodziński says, “The catalyst developed by us has initially lower activity then the existing catalysts made of pure palladium. However the difference disappears after two hours of operation. And further on it only gets better. Our catalyst is stable in operation, whereas the activity of a pure palladium-based catalyst decreases over time.”  That’s really new – a catalyst that improves over time.

Here’s another important plus, the new catalyst preserves its properties while operated in formic acid of low purity. Such formic acid can be easily produced in large quantities, also from biomass, so the fuel for new fuel cells would be very cheap.

One is starting to think the Pols are on to something.

Formic acid produced from biomass would be a fully environment friendly fuel. The reactions involving formic acid in the fuel cell generate the products of water and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is considered a greenhouse gas, but the biomass is obtained from plants which use carbon dioxide for their growth. As a result, formic acid produced from biomass and consumed in fuel cells would not change the content of carbon dioxide in atmospheric air, it’s just another CO2 step in the carbon cycle.

The risk of natural environment contamination by formic acid is also low.  Formic acid occurs naturally in small quantities and is degraded in the environment without being damaging.  A spill of low purity isn’t going to be a huge disaster.  Well, it will be a smelly mess.

But the potential is considerable.  The formic acid fuel cells could find homes in portable electronic devices – mobile phones, laptops or GPS-based devices. They could also be installed as power supply sources in vehicles, from wheelchairs through electric bicycles up to yachts.   High efficiency and power at low operating temperatures offer a much stronger consumer incentive.

At the IPC PAS the research is being undertaken first on battery substitutes based on formic acid fuel cells. The researchers expect that a prototype of a commercial device should be ready within a couple of years.

Just what is that formic acid? Formic acid, aka methanoic acid, is the simplest carboxylic acid, a family of chemicals with a carbon component.  Formic acid is HCO2H, or two hydrogen atoms, with a CO2 segment.  Formic acid has been known for a long time, is colorless, gives off fumes of an unpleasant scent, and mixes well with water.  As it is not flammable when the concentration is below 85% its safety could be desirable.  It can be used as a kind of food additive as a preservative at very low concentration.

On the hand formic acid isn’t pleasant to be around and in high concentrations can damage the skin and eyes.  Animals, including people metabolize and eliminate formic acid easily, but an overdose of formic acid and the formaldehyde made as it metabolizes can damage optic nerves.

But highly concentrated formic acid just decomposes into CO2 and water.  The material is an irritant, corrosive, and could be ignited in pure enough form.  But on the whole, and the reality, the stuff being around all the time anyway, it’s a pretty kindly material which if used as a fuel would be quite a handy thing.  Just don’t spill it – but that applies to virtually everything in the fuels field.

Keep that research going – this idea, as unusual as it seems, has great potential.


1 Comment so far

  1. Anderson on July 20, 2013 12:45 PM

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