Machine Design

A fuel cell in the palm of your hand

The world's smallest catalytic fuel-processing reactor system has been developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

It will provide a low-watt power source for handheld wireless equipment and sensors.

The unit, about the size of a cigarette lighter, converts liquid fuel to electricity via a microscale fuel processor coupled with a microscale fuel cell developed by Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. A key part of the system is a fuel reformer, about the size of a pencil eraser, which converts fuel and water into hydrogen-rich gas. The fuel cell then generates electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen from the air into electrical power and water.

"Our miniaturized fuel processor incorporates several chemical processes and operations in one device," says Evan Jones, PNNL principal investigator. The fuel-processor system contains two vaporizers, a heat exchanger, and a catalytic combustor and steam reformer, all within a dime-sized package. According to Terry Doherty, director of PNNL's Dept. of Defense programs, the fuel-cell processor could let personal communication devices function for extended periods without the added weight of bulky batteries. Methanol has proved to be the most effective fuel source but other liquid fuels such as butane, jet fuel known as JP-8, or even diesel fuel could be used. Also, because hydrogen is only produced as needed, there's no need to carry or store the volatile gas, reducing risk and lightening the load. Soldiers or first responders could power personal, lightweight cooling systems while wearing protective suits and gear, prolonging their comfort and efficiency during reconnaissance.

"This system can produce an equivalent power (20 mW) to batteries, but at one-third the weight," says Jones. Similar micro fuel-cell systems with greater power output (50 W) currently under development are providing power equal to that of batteries weighing 10 times as much.

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