The future’s almost here

By Patrick Boyle

The year 2000 has come and gone and the vast majority of individuals have yet to see Jeston-esque flying cars soaring through the air. But Dr. Robert Farruto believes he has a replacement for the pollution spewing internal combustion engine.

In his lecture Farruto, a lecturer in the 2001 Cross-Canada Chemistry Lectureship, explained the benefits of the proton exchange membrane engine versus today’s dirty standard for automobile propulsion.

"PEM fuel cells generate power without the combustion of hydrocarbons, avoiding the formation of pollutants in the first place."

The idea of "clean" fuel cells has existed for quite some time, and science students will quickly recognize the underlying principle as basic electrochemistry. The source of electricity is the reduction of hydrogen gas to pure water. The reaction proceeds like a household battery: electric current flows from negative to positive and powers anything connected to the circuit along the way. The only problem with the system is getting the hydrogen required.

"This multi-step process involves the oxidation and decontamination of natural gas, the thermal reforming of hydrogen gas from the heated products, and the removal of toxic byproducts such as carbon monoxide," explains Dr. Farruto.

A 95 per cent efficient process exists, but it requires extremely high temperatures and pressures and the use of catalysts that react violently with air. As such, the current method is not feasible, and fuel cell engineers are challenged to create a safe and viable process.

Farruto explained that his company’s newly-developed process for the hydrogen gas synthesis process involves the removal of sulphur contaminants by adsorbtion catalysis instead of high-temperature, high-pressure hydrodesulphurization, the method com- monly used in industry. Furthermore, this method does not require the use of the aforementioned volatile catalysts.

"Dr. Farruto’s research is very pertinent," said Heather Andreas, a U of C PhD student who is attempting to implement another type of fuel cell that uses liquid methanol instead of hydrogen gas. "Hydrogen is the ideal fuel because its only byproduct is water. If [the Engelhard Corporation] has found catalysts that can be used to reduce the onboard reforming process to a form that isn’t terribly expensive or heavy, then they have made a great discovery."

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