Forget those conventional laptop batteries with their pesky limited lifespans. A new kind of lightweight, long lasting source of power for laptops and other portable devices is at hand, in the form of a fuel cell powered by methane. Generally speaking, methane is a fossil fuel (it’s a component of natural gas), but methane in the form of renewable biogas is also starting to break into the commercial market. So, as you noodle around on your laptop while digesting your Thanksgiving dinner, remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, and fart proudly.
Renewable Biogas is on the Rise
Biogas production has been exploding (hahaha sorry, couldn’t resist) across America. Biogas recycling is becoming standard at sewage treatment plants, the U.S. EPA is promoting biogas for dairy farms and other livestock operations, and the food industry is adopting biogas for food processing plants. All of these operations use biogas to power equipment on site, but in a significant step forward the Dos Rios Water Recycling Center in San Antonio, Texas has become the first municipal wastewater treatment facility to sell biogas for use off site. That opens up some intriguing possibilities for using renewable methane biogas to power the next generation of fuel cells.
Methane Fuel Cells
Fuel cells generate energy from a chemical reaction. Conventional fuel cells use platinum as a foundational material, but platinum is expensive, and the search has been on for cheaper materials. At the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a team led by researcher Shriram Ramanathan has been working on a solid oxide fuel cell that does not need any platinum. Ramanathan’s team has also created a micro-scale solid oxide fuel cell that operates at the relatively low temperature of 500 degrees Celsius. This fuel cell uses methane, which is less expensive than the hydrogen used in conventional fuel cells. The next step is to develop the technology to operate at approximately 300 degrees Celsius – the “sweet spot,” according to Ramanathan – and to find common, inexpensive catalysts that can work in tandem with methane.
Not All Farts Are Created Equal
Ramanathan envisions a low cost, methane-powered, micro-scale fuel cell for laptops and other portable devices, but obviously it’s a long leap from methane-powered fuel cells to fuel cells that are powered straight from human farts, part of the reason being that many human farts contain no methane. Oh well, one can always dream.
Image: Laptop by Baddog_ on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.