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Fuel cells

Farm In My Pocket is now involved in searching for alternative energy sources, including fuel cells, for families living in rural areas in south India. This is connected with the Tashi Tunnel, a large polytunnel (sponsored by First Tunnels Ltd) that we sent to the area in early 2012 (see here).

Most families in rural south India use bottled gas for cooking. This is expensive and its cost will continue to rise in the future. It’s also a non-sustainable fossil fuel that cannot be replaced, and a lack of a viable alternative takes valuable resources away from people who are not wealthy to begin with.

Farm In My Pocket will post updates as the project evolves. We hope to be making a field trip to Bangalore in December of this year, including a visit to see the Tashi Tunnel.

Possible alternative energy sources

Solar energy is one alternative source that we’ll be investigating. While solar panels and inverters may be too expensive for the locals to consider, it’s now possible to produce cheap and effective solar ovens which, any time the sun is around, can be used for cooking.

Wind energy is also a possible solution, although again its high initial cost may be prohibitive. Where this is the case we’ll be seeking funding from alternative sources.

Fuel cells

Another interesting possibility is energy from fuel cells. These typically use bio diesel, hydrogen or methanol to generate electricity. However, they don’t use ‘traditional’ methods. The molecular bonds in methanol, for example, are broken using a catalyst to instantly generate electricity – without using combustion. This is a far more efficient method than simply burning one fuel – such as coal, or gas – in order to generate another – such as electricity.

While methanol fuel cells are becoming comparatively mainstream in developed nations – where they’re often found in leisure boats and camper vans – they’re rare elsewhere. This is due to the expense not only of the cells themselves but also the fuel.

fuel cells, image

Methanol fuel cells on the Efoy website. On the left, the domestic version. The industrial version is on the right.

Methanol is also known as ‘wood alcohol’. It can be produced by heating fresh, green wood and running the resulting vapour through a condenser. However, the last thing developing nations need is more deforestation. So, ethanol may be a much better solution. It can be produced from simple fermentation, and sugar cane is one of the commonest crops in the area.

Click here to see an example of an ethanol fuel cell in action.

While it’s true to say that using farmland to generate bio fuels rather than food is not the best way to help a growing population, it’s also true to say that energy has to be sourced somehow – and right now valuable food crops have to be sold in order to generate the money with which to buy bottled gas.

Ethanol fuel cell by-products had previously included acetic acid and acetaldehyde as well as the carbon dioxide and water produced by methanol fuel cells. However, by using comparatively new catylists – only developed in early 2009 – this is no longer the case. The last remaining problem with them seems to be that the development of a commercially-viable ethanol fuel cell is still in its infancy. So, while methanol fuel cells are already available – though expensive – their ethanol counterparts are lagging behind.

Hopefully in the near future they will become mainstream enough give developing nations, and others, another way to avoid continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Links:

The Efoy website
Fuel cells – a scientific review

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