Monday, August 16, 2004

Are Fuel Cells the Future?

From Instapundit and Futurepundit, comes this promising news about an alternative energy resource:

Imagine a power source so small, yet so efficient, that it could make cumbersome power plants virtually obsolete while lowering your electric bill. A breakthrough in thin film solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) is currently being refined in labs at the University of Houston, making that dream a reality.

Originating from research at UH's Texas Center for Superconductivity and Advanced Materials (TcSAM), these SOFCs of the "thin film" variety are both efficient and compact. With potential ranging from use in the government in matters of defense and space travel to driving forces in the consumer market that include computers and electricity, this breakthrough carries tremendous impact.

"By using materials science concepts developed in our superconductivity research and materials processing concepts in our semiconductor research, we are able to reduce operating temperatures, eliminate steps and use less expensive materials that will potentially revolutionize from where we derive electrical energy," said Alex Ignatiev, director of TcSAM and distinguished university professor of physics, chemistry and electrical and computer engineering at UH. "While there are a number of fuel cell research programs at the university, ours focuses on the application of thin film science and technology to gain the benefits of efficiency and low cost."

Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick – the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts – more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.

While we wait and develop these new technologies, however, we should be thinking about how we are going to meet soaring demand in today's markets nonetheless.