Focus on energy: Power solutions pursued from unlikely sources

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Aug. 18, 2004 – It may sound like weird science, but small tech power is being pursued in some unusual places, including your liquor cabinet and toilet. What’s more, if you thought cold fusion was so 80s, it — and a new variant called sonofusion — has bubbled back into the news.

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A small St. Louis startup, Akermin Inc., is developing a micro fuel cell that could run on vodka or any other ethanol-based fluid. The alcohol fuel reacts with enzymes rather than catalytic metals to produce electrons.

Such biofuel cells have been investigated for decades, but the problem has been in creating a stable environment for enzymes that are extremely sensitive to temperature and pH conditions.

Researchers at St. Louis University coated the fuel cell’s electrodes with a polymer that forms tiny micelles, or pores within which the enzymes can live for weeks, rather than days. The enzymes turn anything alcoholic (beer works, though not as well as the harder stuff) into useful juice.

The developers are focusing on working on prototypes that are about the size of a postage stamp. Chemistry professor and company co-founder Shelley Minteer reported that the fuel cells have successfully run on vodka, gin, white wine and flat beer.

“The fuel cell didn’t like the carbonation,” Minteer said.

In April, BioGenerator, a new seed-capital company, invested $400,000 in the project. In addition, St. Louis University has given Akermin founders Minteer and grad student Nick Akers $250,000 in grants and licensing waivers.

Love that dirty water

One day, simply flushing the toilet could run the lights in your vanity mirror. Penn State  scientists are using bacteria to turn sewage into electricity. A soda can-size device called a microbial fuel cell harvests electrons that bacteria produce while digesting waste.

At first, the prototype in environmental engineer Bruce Logan’s laboratory barely produced enough juice to light a single bulb, but in June his team announced they had made the device cheaper and efficient enough to power a fan.

The bacteria attach themselves to the fuel cell’s positively charged electrode, or anode, made of carbon paper. As the bacteria metabolize the organic material in wastewater, they release positively charged hydrogen ions into the water and negatively charged electrons to the anode.

Bubbling back again

After decades of derision, the concept of cold fusion is getting a, well, lukewarm reception in some circles. The Department of Energy agreed to review some work suggesting that there may be something actually going on in the process first described by scientists at University of Utah in 1989, but discredited when results couldn’t be reliably reproduced.

Under the right conditions, further experiments have produced more heat than standard theory predicts.

On a related front, Impulse Devices of Grass Valley, Calif., is working on a technology called sonofusion that gives tantalizing hints that fusion power might be possible without extremely high temperatures and magnetic fields.

The company is making reactors that allow scientists to create a burst of ultrasound that causes bubbles in hydrogen-rich liquid to expand and then collapse into a bright flash of light, a phenomenon known as sonoluminescence.

Some scientists theorize that the gases in the collapsing bubbles are compressing enough to trigger nuclear fusion. Fusion, the process at work within stars, creates energy when hydrogen atoms slam together and fuse into helium atoms, releasing heat and light.

In 2002, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee first reported that they could make hydrogen nuclei fuse by forcing tiny bubbles in acetone to implode when bombarded with sound waves. Impulse Devices believes it can build a commercial fusion generator in about 10 years.


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