"We have shown the ability to use diesel like fuels without the need to remove sulfur and other impurities which poison traditional metal catalysts," says the study's primary author, Jenny Ulyanova, principal investigator at CFDRC. "The fact that the electrochemical reaction occurs at room temperature means enhanced efficiency and less balance of plant requirements. Room temperature operation also means no thermal signature which is important to soldiers in covert operations."
There have been previous attempts to use diesel like fuels to generate electricity, usually with solid-oxide fuel cell technology. Those systems operate at very high temperatures ( > 950 ºF) and require reforming of the fuel (also at high temperatures) to remove the sulfur which can destroy the catalyst materials. Those high temperatures mean low efficiency as much of the energy is released as waste heat.
So a novel approach was needed, and the CFDRC and Utah researchers turned to an enzymatic fuel cell which uses enzymes as catalysts. Enzymes are proteins that can act as catalysts by speeding up chemical reactions. These fuel cells can operate at room temperature and can tolerate sulfur.
"CFDRC has been a pioneer in enzymatic fuel cell technology, working first with sugar based fuels, then alcohol, and now diesel, we have shown that it is possible to produce electrical power using biomimetic processes," says Sameer Singhal, vice president of biomedical and energy technologies at CFDRC. "With the additional funding from the Air Force we will be concentrating on increasing the power and efficiency and productizing the technology for use in the field."