Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Low Temperature Combustion

Thanks to Science Blog for passing along this Oak Ridge National Laboratory article about low-temperature combustion of carbon fuels.
In a paper scheduled to appear in the May 18 print issue of the American Chemical Society's Energy & Fuels, Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Hu describes a novel method to achieve spontaneous ignition and sustained combustion at room temperature. He achieves this "nano-catalytic reaction" with nothing but nanometer-sized particles of platinum stuck to fibers of glass wool in a small jar with methanol and air – with no source of external ignition.

Although this began as little more than a curiosity, Hu quickly realized that the implications could be significant because of the potential gains in energy conversion and utilization. Hu now cites possibilities in the area of distributed power generation and perhaps military and homeland defense.

While additional research needs to be performed to understand the phenomena, Hu notes that natural organisms such as microbes, plants and animals obtain energy from oxidation of the same organic chemicals at their physiological, or body, temperatures. Many of these biological reactions also use metals as part of their enzyme catalysts. Still, this is a surprising result in the field of metal catalysis.

"Since the caveman days, we have burned things to utilize their energy, and the high temperatures and the entire process have created a lot of problems that we're then forced to deal with," said Hu, a physicist in the Life Sciences Division of the Department of Energy's ORNL.

If this can be somehow harnessed to perform useful work, it might easily improve efficiencies in all kinds of devices.