Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Could metal particles be the clean fuel of the future?


McGill-led research points to metal powders as potential replacement for fossil fuels

Can you imagine a future where your car is fueled by iron powder instead of gasoline?

Stabilized flames of different metal powders burn with air, compared to a methane-air flame.

Credit: Alternative Fuels Laboratory/McGill University

Metal powders, produced using clean primary energy sources, could provide a more viable long-term replacement for fossil fuels than other widely discussed alternatives, such as hydrogen, biofuels or batteries, according to a study in the Dec. 15 issue of the journal Applied Energy.

"Technologies to generate clean electricity - primarily solar and wind power - are being developed rapidly; but we can't use that electricity for many of the things that oil and gas are used for today, such as transportation and global energy trade," notes McGill University professor Jeffrey Bergthorson, lead author of the new study.

"Biofuels can be part of the solution, but won't be able to satisfy all the demand; hydrogen requires big, heavy fuel tanks and is explosive, and batteries are too bulky and don't store enough energy for many applications," says Bergthorson, a mechanical engineering professor and Associate Director of the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design at McGill. "Using metal powders as recyclable fuels that store clean primary energy for later use is a very promising alternative solution."

Novel concept

The Applied Energy paper, co-authored by Bergthorson with five other McGill researchers and a European Space Agency scientist in the Netherlands, lays out a novel concept for using tiny metal particles - similar in size to fine flour or icing sugar - to power external-combustion engines.

Unlike the internal-combustion engines used in gasoline-powered cars, external-combustion engines use heat from an outside source to drive an engine. External-combustion engines, modern versions of the coal-fired steam locomotives that drove the industrial era, are widely used to generate power from nuclear, coal or biomass fuels in power stations.

The idea of burning metal powders is nothing new - they've been used for centuries in fireworks, for instance. Since the mid-20th century, they've also been used in rocket propellants, such as the space shuttle's solid-fuel booster rockets. But relatively little research has been done in recent decades on the properties of metal flames, and the potential for metal powders to be used as a recyclable fuel in a wide range of applications has been largely overlooked by scientists.

Recyclable after combustion

The idea put forward by the McGill team takes advantage of an important property of metal powders: when burned, they react with air to form stable, nontoxic solid-oxide products that can be collected relatively easily for recycling - unlike the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels that escape into the atmosphere.

Using a custom-built burner, the McGill researchers demonstrated that a flame can be stabilized in a flow of tiny metal particles suspended in air. Flames from metal powders "appear quite similar" to those produced by burning hydrocarbon fuels, the researchers write. "The energy and power densities of the proposed metal-fueled heat engines are predicted to be close to current fossil-fueled internal combustion engines, making them an attractive technology for a future low-carbon society."

Iron could be the primary candidate for this purpose, according to the study. Millions of tons of iron powders are already produced annually for the metallurgy, chemical and electronic industries. And iron is readily recyclable with well-established technologies, and some novel techniques can avoid the carbon dioxide emissions associated with traditional iron production using coal.

Next step: building a prototype

While laboratory work at McGill and elsewhere has shown that the use of metal fuels with heat engines is technically feasible, no one has yet demonstrated the idea in practice. The next step toward turning the lab findings into usable technology, therefore, will be "to build a prototype burner and couple it to a heat engine," Bergthorson says.

"Developing metal recycling processes that don't involve CO2 emissions is also critical."

Co-author David Jarvis, head of strategic and emerging technologies at the European Space Agency, adds: "We are very interested in this technology because it opens the door to new propulsion systems that can be used in space and on earth. The shift away from fossil fuels for vehicle propulsion is a clear trend for the future. While not perfected and commercialized today, the use of low-cost metallic fuels, like iron powder, is a worthy alternative to petrol and diesel fuels. If we can demonstrate, for the first time, an iron-fueled engine with almost zero CO2 emissions, we believe this would then trigger even more innovation and cost reduction in the near future."


Research on metal combustion at McGill has been funded over the past 20 years by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Department of National Defence, the U.S. Defence Threat Reduction Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, Martec Ltd. (Halifax, NS), and the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design.

"Direct combustion of recyclable metal fuels for zero-carbon heat and power", J.M. Bergthorson et al, Applied Energy, 15 December 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2015.09.037

Media Contact

Chris Chipello


Chris Chipello | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: CO2 CO2 emissions European combustion fossil fuels fuels powder powders primary energy

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Neutrons pave the way to accelerated production of lithium-ion cells
20.03.2018 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Monocrystalline silicon thin film for cost-cutting solar cells with 10-times faster growth rate fabricated
16.03.2018 | Tokyo Institute of Technology

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Space observation with radar to secure Germany's space infrastructure

Satellites in near-Earth orbit are at risk due to the steady increase in space debris. But their mission in the areas of telecommunications, navigation or weather forecasts is essential for society. Fraunhofer FHR therefore develops radar-based systems which allow the detection, tracking and cataloging of even the smallest particles of debris. Satellite operators who have access to our data are in a better position to plan evasive maneuvers and prevent destructive collisions. From April, 25-29 2018, Fraunhofer FHR and its partners will exhibit the complementary radar systems TIRA and GESTRA as well as the latest radar techniques for space observation across three stands at the ILA Berlin.

The "traffic situation" in space is very tense: the Earth is currently being orbited not only by countless satellites but also by a large volume of space...

Im Focus: Researchers Discover New Anti-Cancer Protein

An international team of researchers has discovered a new anti-cancer protein. The protein, called LHPP, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells in the liver. The researchers led by Prof. Michael N. Hall from the Biozentrum, University of Basel, report in “Nature” that LHPP can also serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer.

The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing. In the last twenty years, the number of cases has almost doubled...

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

New solar solutions for sustainable buildings and cities

23.03.2018 | Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Don't Give the Slightest Chance to Toxic Elements in Medicinal Products

23.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Sensitive grip

23.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

No compromises: Combining the benefits of 3D printing and casting

23.03.2018 | Process Engineering

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>