Preserving the Environment

Powdered, unflavored gelatin, stirred into juice, makes a refreshing beverage that strengthens fingernails. Mixing gelatin powder with boiling water, pouring it into a festive mold and chilling it to set creates a fun, jiggling dessert that kids love. Now, gelatin may find a new calling as a means toward creating an effective, cheap fuel.

Fuel? From Gelatin?

As noted in the Journals of Material Chemistry A, [1] and reported in both The Conversation and ArsTechnica, [2] a team of researchers from the UK, Japan and China, helmed by Zoe Schnepp of the University of Birmingham, investigated the application of ordinary gelatin in the production of fuel cells.

Fuel cells are somewhat like everyday batteries in that they work by storing energy and releasing the power through the means of a chemical reaction. In this case, the electrochemical process combines hydrogen and oxygen. The water creation process is then converted into electricity. While familiar torch batteries go dead once all the internal chemicals are used up, they produce an unending stream of electricity as long as these chemicals are kept internally coursing through the cell.

These hydrogen-based power devices supply energy quietly and cleanly, with plain water and a little heat the only excreted by-products of use. This has made the prospect of implementing them particularly compelling to automobile manufacturers, who could then manufacture cars with a zero carbon emission rating. The myriad possible applications of a completely clean energy source are recognized and coveted by industries, governments and academicians around the world.

Unfortunately, a cost barrier has thus far kept popular usage of fuel cells at bay. The conventional process for making these cells requires the use of platinum, a very expensive precious metal. This manufacturing expense renders the costs associated with making fuel cells considerably high, and out of reach for widespread commercial applications.

What If?

But, what if there were a way to dramatically cut the manufacturing costs for making these clean and efficiently powerful cells? What if there were a way to substitute other matter for the precious platinum? What kind of material could possibly take platinum's place?

Oddly enough, the answer may prove to be: gelatin.

The research team stepped into its scientific kitchen and whipped up a little technical dessert with the question, "What if?" poised silently on their lips. Could an ingredient as mundane and inexpensive as gelatin actually turn high-priced fuel cells into a viable alternative for producing cheap fuel for the masses?

The process began with the team combining salts of magnesium and iron with gelatin, mixing it all up until it became foamy. The airy foam then underwent the process of calcination, wherein the foam was heated to 800°C. This degraded the gelatin and oxidized the metals. In the process, the aerated gelatin served essentially the same purpose as yeast does in baking bread, creating thousands of air pockets. But the proteins of the gelatin helped bind the metallic salts into a solid form. The resulting product was essentially a sponge-shaped structure containing metal nanoparticles. An acid wash removed leftover metal particles, and what remained was a carbon based porous structure.

Nooks and Crannies

The importance of all the spherical shapes formed in the metallic structure is that every curve increases total surface area. The network of internal bubbles provides more room for the hydrogen/oxygen reaction to produce more water, which in turn produces more electricity. The greater the number of pores, the more effectively the cell can produce fuel.

The research team's foamy fuel cell recipe can be altered to change the shape of the resulting bubbles. A little more magnesium, a little less iron, and the resulting pore formations are different. Fine tuning the recipe can make cheap fuel even more affordable by making the interior structures more technically adept at doing their job of acting as a catalyst for the chemical conversion process.

Testing the Mettle of the Metal

As all good cooks know, the proof is in the pudding, so the researchers set out to compare how their inexpensive fuel cell of gelatinous origin performed against one conventionally formed with dear platinum.

The results were devastating--for the platinum device. The foamy-formed gelatin fuel cell performed just as well as its pricey competitor, and proved itself to be just as durable, too. For the price of a packet of gelatin and inexpensive, readily available metallic salts, Schnepp's research team may have just revolutionized cheap fuel for the world over.


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