Power to the people


Gorte (center), with Park (left) and Vohs, shows off a fuel cell.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Instead of a chicken in every pot, Raymond Gorte envisions a fuel cell in every home.

Gorte, Carl V.S. Patterson Professor and chair of Chemical Engineering, is part of a team that has developed a power source that uses natural gas (methane) to produce electricity in a way that has the potential to be cleaner and cheaper than existing methods. Other team members are John Vohs, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical engineering, and postdoctoral associate Seungdoo Park.

Theoretically, every household could have a fuel cell the size of an air conditioner to generate electricity.

“Fuel cells can achieve a much higher efficiency than other modes of electric generation,” Gorte said. “You can generate more electricity ... for every pound of gas that’s [used].”

Fuel cells generate energy not by burning fuel but by utilizing electrochemical reactions to convert fuel to electricity. Existing fuel cells usually use hydrogen, which is created by first converting hydrocarbons to hydrogen — an expensive process.

“What we’ve done is basically eliminated that step, and that step is at least as costly as the fuel cell itself,” Gorte explained.

Gorte’s team came up with a way to use common and inexpensive hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane and butane without the common problem of a graphite “goo” forming to gunk up the works. Previous attempts to create this type of fuel cell used nickel-based anodes, which catalyze the formation of graphite. Gorte and his team decided to try to use copper, which is inert, so it doesn’t form graphite.

“It sounds trivial,” Gorte said. “Why didn’t somebody try copper instead of nickel?” But Gorte explained that because of the nature of copper, it was difficult to create a copper-based anode, so no one made the attempt. However, Gorte used his previous knowledge and research in automotive technology — on catalytic converters — to solve the problem.

A paper that he and Vohs published caught the eye of the Gas Research Institute, which funded further investigation.

“It’s just more efficient if you can generate the power on site rather than burning the methane at some power plant some distance away,” Gorte said of his work to develop a home-use fuel cell.

Other possible practical applications include fuel cell-powered cars, though Gorte sees the development of such vehicles as being far in the future. Also, the Office of Naval Research has funded investigation into fuel cells as portable power sources on the battlefield.

Armed with the common sense he learned growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Gorte said that though this research has not yet produced a commercially viable product, that is his goal. A patent is pending and he is seeking licensing arrangements.

“I am an engineer, and to me, it’s much more fun doing science when science has an application,” he said.

Originally published on April 6, 2000