Metal-Fueled Flames May be the Future of Clean Energy

First Posted: Dec 09, 2015 12:42 PM EST

Metal particles may just be the clean fuel of the future. Scientists have found that metal powders could provide a more viable long-term replacement for fossil fuels than any other widely discussed alternatives.

"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," said Jeffer Bergthorson, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "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. Using metal powers as recyclable fuels that store clean primary energy for later use is a very promising alternative solution."

So how does it work? The method involves using tiny metal particles to power external-combustion engines. Unlike internal-combustion engines, external-combustion engines are modern versions of the coal-fired steam locomotives that drove the industrial era and are widely used to generate power from nuclear, coal or biomass fuels in power stations.

In this case, the researchers demonstrated that a flame can be stabilized in a flow of tiny metal particles suspended in air. Flames from metal powders actually appear similar to those produced by burning hydrocarbon fuels.

"The energy and power densities of the proposed metal-fueled heat engines are predicted to be close to current fossil-fueled internal combustion engines, making them an attractive technology for a future low-carbon society," write the researchers.

Currently, the scientists are working on building a prototype, turning lab findings into usable technology.

The findings are published in the journal Applied Energy.

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