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Advances in alternative energy

By James G. Robertson, National Geographic Digital Media

There have been several advances this month in developing alternative energy sources, most notably in fuel cell and solar cell technology.  Here’s a brief summary of some of these discoveries that may make alternative energy easier and cheaper to produce.

  • Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have developed a new chemical process to produce polymers used in plastic solar cells, the university announced this weekend.  The new process cuts the time needed to produce the polymers by almost half, and allows the molecules to carry more current for their size.  And because the new method takes less time to produce new plastics, it also allows researchers to develop and test more plastics that may be more efficient and last longer.
  • University of Calgary researchers have discovered a material that allows a certain type of fuel cell, called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (or PEM cell), to operate at higher temperatures, making them cheaper and more efficient.  Current PEM technology uses platinum, an expensive metal, as part of the reaction that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water and electrical energy. The higher temperature would allow use of less-expensive metals and make the electricity-producing reaction faster.
  • Georgia Tech researchers have found a new ceramic used in another type of fuel cell, the solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC), that allows them to operate at lower temperatures.  Solid-oxide fuel cells use hydrocarbon fuel like propane or natural gas to produce electricity.  Existing SOFCs needed high-temperature steam to operate, required more expensive low-sulfur fuels, and suffered from a buildup of carbon on the electricity-carrying parts of the cell.  The new material takes care of all of these problems, but still needs further testing to see how long it will last.