As electrons flow from one half-reaction or half-cell to the other, it produces an electric circuit. Designing a scalable energy converter device will allow self-contained electrolytic chemical reactions to power many devices, at home or even at the office.
By Jose Saldana for The National Business Post
June 20, 2022
It’s simple: a chemical reaction that occurs naturally could be used to generate electrical energy. This ecologically friendly technology, if harnessed properly and if contained in a generation unit compact enough, could power electric motors, a house or other devices. Better yet, it would come at a lower cost while, at the same time, reducing the carbon footprint. That said, there are challenges to consider.
First things first
Start with the basics. How does an electrolytic chemical reaction work? According to the Bodner Group, in the Division of Chemistry Education at Purdue University, “the first law of thermodynamics states that the energy given off in a chemical reaction can be converted into heat, work, or a mixture of heat and work.” By running the half-reactions in separate containers, electrons can be forced “to flow from the oxidation to the reduction half-reaction through an external wire, which allows us to capture as much as possible of the energy given off in the reaction as electrical work.”
Simply put, this chemical reaction can create an energy source that if captured efficiently can be used to generate electrical power. As electrons flow from one half-reaction or half-cell to the other, it produces an electric circuit. Remember, opposite charges attract, positive to negative and vice versa, creating that electrical energy. It is cleaner, does not emit carbon and can be used as a green energy source. Designing a scalable energy converter device will allow the self-contained electrolytic chemical reaction to power many devices, a home or even a business.
It is essential to make sure these electrolytic reactions occur at a high enough density to generate sufficient electrical energy. In this way, they will become a true alternative to other power sources that create a higher carbon footprint. It could be ideal for supplying power to medical testing equipment and even bigger systems, as the density of that chemical reaction is increased and harnessed. The higher the density of the electrolytic reaction – the faster the flow of electrons from one half-cell to the other, the more potential energy that can be produced. In this context two goals for researchers are:
1) Finding the most efficient electrolytes that maximize the energy created by the electron flow from one half cell to the other.
2) Capturing that energy and incorporating it into an electrical circuit connected to the device or system to be powered.
Ultimately, the ideal goal is to develop the most efficient conversion system to capture and then distribute the energy created by that chemical reaction. For devices to be powered this way, designing a small, unobtrusive housing—say no bigger than a suitcase perhaps—will lead to more acceptance of this technology if, and when, it hits the market. That unit would contain the electrolytic chambers, one charged positive, the other negative, where the electron flow from materials immersed in those electrolytes (substances containing ions, like strong acids and water-soluble ionic compounds), creating the electrical energy desired.
As they teach in a first chemistry class, energy is neither created nor destroyed, it is just converted. That is the beauty of the electrolytic principal. It isn’t new at all but considering it as a possible energy source, that is novel. Electrical energy created from the flow of electrons is all around us, and even inside the human body via our nervous systems. Electrical pulses power the heart for that matter. Lightning occurs when electrons move from positively charged clouds through the negatively charged air or to the ground for example.
There might be marketing challenges to overcome when proposing any new clean energy that moves society away from the fossil fuels that have been used for well over a century. Constituencies that are heavily invested in traditional energy sources like fossil fuels and their allies at the state and federal level can slow the progress of green energy adoption.
In addition, costs are a factor. Research and initial startup expenses often delay implementation, as are transition costs for businesses that convert from traditional power sources. Data from earthtechling.com for example shows the cost of solar installations has dropped 65% since 2010. Solarnerd.com reports that the cost of a photovoltaic cell was $77 for just one watt of power produced in 1977; those same solar cells can be priced for as little as 13 cents each today. When produced for consumer consumption, initially, there are no economies of scale, which contribute to escalating prices that can lead back to a dependence on tried-and-true fossil fuels. Yet, once the technology is developed, the high-density energy created from electrolytic reactions should lower the cost of that transition.
It can be done
The materials needed to create this new, greener energy source that could ultimately supply electricity are already emerging. It’s a matter of figuring out how to drive that chemical reaction to a density high enough to be efficient, dependable and cost effective. Can it be done? Didn’t critics say the same thing about solar and wind? While not yet providing the lion’s share of the power needed, both technologies have come a long way. Especially in the case of solar, the manufacturing and installation costs have come down dramatically. Who is to say that won’t be the case for electrolytic systems in the foreseeable future?
To achieve success takes designing a two-cell system, compact in size and for the energy density of the electrolytes to be increased so it is high enough for practical applications. A simple chemical reaction if harnessed efficiently could be another “tool in the toolbox” as the nation and the world look to wean itself further away from fossil fuels that are used to operate power plants. Being able to power medical devices and other products that plug into a wall socket in a more environmentally-friendly way—an electrical outlet that now may draw power generated by a facility that runs on coal or natural gas—could be a key component in the drive to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce carbon footprints. Creating a scalable energy converter device that is still compact in size will help this technology gain acceptance in the marketplace and become a viable green energy alternative.
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