News ID: 132687
Published: 0903 GMT December 12, 2015

Metal powders as potential replacement for fossil fuels

Metal powders as potential replacement for fossil fuels

Metal powders, produced using clean primary energy sources, could provide a more viable long-term replacement for fossil fuels than other widely discussed alternatives, such as hydrogen, biofuels or batteries, according to a new study.

"Technologies to generate clean electricity — primarily solar and wind power — are being developed rapidly; but we can't use that electricity for many of the things that oil and gas are used for today, such as transportation and global energy trade," noted McGill University Professor Jeffrey Bergthorson, lead author of the new study, according to ExtremeTech.

"Biofuels can be part of the solution, but won't be able to satisfy all the demand; hydrogen requires big, heavy fuel tanks and is explosive, and batteries are too bulky and don't store enough energy for many applications," said Bergthorson. "Using metal powders as recyclable fuels that store clean primary energy for later use is a very promising alternative solution."

The new research lays out a novel concept for using tiny metal particles —   similar in size to fine flour or icing sugar —   to power external-combustion engines.

Unlike the internal-combustion engines used in gasoline-powered cars, external-combustion engines use heat from an outside source to drive an engine. External-combustion engines, modern versions of the coal-fired steam locomotives that drove the industrial era, are widely used to generate power from nuclear, coal or biomass fuels in power stations.

The idea of burning metal powders is nothing new — they've been used for centuries in fireworks, for instance. Since the mid-20th century, they've also been used in rocket propellants, such as the space shuttle's solid-fuel booster rockets. But relatively little research has been done in recent decades on the properties of metal flames, and the potential for metal powders to be used as a recyclable fuel in a wide range of applications has been largely overlooked by scientists.

The idea put forward by the McGill team takes advantage of an important property of metal powders: When burned, they react with air to form stable, nontoxic solid-oxide products that can be collected relatively easily for recycling — unlike the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels that escape into the atmosphere.

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