The march toward a clean-energy economy is long and winding, but one thing is for certain: we’ll need a whole lot more energy to replace fossil fuels, and with that electricity demand comes the conundrum of how we can generate and store enough energy to meet all of our energy needs.
But how do we do it in a more efficient way? A team of Portland State University students called Regener8 has a plan.
“We are a fuel cell company, so we provide a higher energy density solution than any of the other green energy solutions right now,” said Jacob Brauer, a first-year master’s candidate in mechanical engineering at Portland State University. Regener8 will design and manufacture cutting-edge ethanol-based generators that could scale from industry to the household. “The theoretical high-end efficiency is one hundred percent.”
But getting there has not been easy. Over the course of the Cleantech Challenge, challenges in the manufacturing of its fuel cell has forced Regener8 to adjust its manufacturing process, confounding the timing of its delivery and threatening the team’s ability to produce a final prototype.
In order to draw energy from its power cell, Regener8 flowed ethanol over a cathode that they coated with a special chemical. This special chemical is part of the proprietary chemistry that Regener8 uses to produce a fuel cell with a high efficiency. However, over successive uses, Regener8 learned that the flow of ethanol would eventually strip their proprietary chemical from the cathode, rendering the fuel cell ineffective.
To address the issue, the team built a heat press that would more deeply engrain the chemical coating on the cathode, making it harder to remove. In principle, the fuel cell is more stable, and the team will finish a prototype on time for the Cleantech finals on April 1.
With a working prototype, Regener8 plans to pitch its fuel cell to manufacturers and distributors that will help bring the fuel cell to market. “We are contributing to a disruptive technology that's already been started by Toyota,” Brauer said. Likewise, the team expects to pitch to the automotive giant a fuel cell that’s three times more efficient than the one that Toyota plans to use in a new line of hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, called the Mirai, that it intends to rival EV titan Tesla.
One way or another, Toyota’s Mirai and Regener8’s fuel cell share in mind an important vision and caution. When we talk about energy, whether it’s electric cars or a stable, renewable electrical grid supply, the clean-energy calculus requires that we factor in an enormous battery capacity to store and distribute electricity where we need it. It is an Achilles heel of the clean-energy transition.
“We don't have the infrastructure,” Brauer said. “If every car in the US went to electric, our grid would fail. And we have a massive amount of money to go into updating that grid. And I just don't think it's going to happen.”
With Regener8, that transition becomes more manageable with ethanol-based energy generation that is almost three times more efficient than internal combustion engines.
“Brazil is the fifth largest economy in the world and all the power there currently gets produced by pure ethanol, internal combustion engines,” Brauer said. “We could go down there and basically right out the gate, double the efficiency of every engine that is working in Brazil.”
“From an economic standpoint, a lot of facilities need to replace their power systems anyway,” said Jacob Palumbo, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in biophysics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. “Hospitals need backup generators and so on and so forth. So they need to replace these systems anyway. We make a cheaper option for them.”
Cheaper or not, team Regener8 knows that one thing is certain: We need viable solutions to facilitate a clean energy transition, and an ethanol fuel cell could be an important step in that direction.
“We're all about things like electric cars and electric this and that,” said Karelly Ramirez Gonzalez, a PSU undergraduate in chemistry and physics. “But it is actually not like what they're selling to us. We need to take a second here and evaluate and really think about what we're doing.”
To make for a better, climate neutral future, we should be thinking about ethanol.
Jacob Brauer is a first-year master’s candidate in mechanical engineering at Portland State University. Jacob Palumbo is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in biophysics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Brauer and Palumbo are accompanied by Karelly Ramirez Gonzalez, a PSU undergraduate in chemistry and physics, Matt Moradi, a PSU sophomore in computer science, Cody Prouty, Regener8’s lead chemist, and Leon Torres.