Powering the Future on Ant Venom
Dr. Chris D'Couto's company specializes in micro electric power systems: backup batteries that recharge your cellphone, tiny micro fuel cells, and now a reformer that converts formic acid, the key ingredient in ant venom, into hydrogen gas for running up to 5 kW fuel cells.
The public relations company wondered if I'd be interested in learning more about a company called Neah Power, based in Bothwell, Washington. Besides their micro fuel cell based BuzzBar and BuzzCell battery technology, they are working on a fuel cell system that runs off of formic acid.
Before I agreed, I decided to first find out what formic acid is. It sounded dangerous.
Turns out it is one of the more benign chemicals made up of two hydrogen atoms that bookend a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Its chemical designation is HCOOH. As Wikipedia noted, it is a natural chemical that ants produce for their venom. It's also used to preserve cattle silage, among its other industrial applications.
Maybe best of all, it can be produced by a renewable process that recycles CO2 out of the atmosphere via plant biomass. Joan Slonczewski notes on her blog that the bacterium Acetobacterium woodii can be stimulated to convert dangerous carbon monoxide found in syngas into formic acid, a clear liquid that can be shipped and stored like any liquid fuel.
Using formic acid as a 'fuel' is where Neah Power comes into the picture. Besides their battery and micro fuel cell technology, the company last year acquired a firm that developed a reformer that rips apart the formic acid molecule, separating the two hydrogen atoms from the carbon and oxygen atoms. Those hydrogen atoms can then be fed into a fuel cell, including their own micro fuel cell to generate electric power. While the company is mainly focused on sub-kilowatt energy applications, it has developed some experimental units capable of outputting up to five kW.
According to Dr. Chris D'Couto, Neah Power's CEO and the featured guest in the interview below, a five kilowatt hour fuel cell running off a tank of liquid formic acid would be configured to trickle charge an electric vehicle's battery, allowing it, like the gasoline engine generator in the BMW i3 REx, to offer extended range capability. Unlike the i3 REx, the only tailpipe emission would be water vapor and CO2.
The company just launched an Indiegogo campaign for help crowdfund the production of their new BuzzBar Suite, a system that allows the charging of mobile devices from four different power sources: the grid, backup battery, solar cells, and micro fuel cell. The video dialogue with Dr. D'Couto via Skype is divided into three segments.
Originally published: 16 Sep 2014
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