What do gadget-laden outdoor enthusiasts in the developed world have in common with rural villagers that have no access to electricity in developing nations? They could soon be using the same clean hydrogen generation technology being developed by a small, private US chemical company.
“It’s been a long road and providing hydrogen has been hard to do, we are lucky that we can provide a reliable on/off system,” SiGNa Chemistry’s CEO Michael Lefenfeld recently told Breaking Energy.
SiGNa received an initial $100,000 from US government aid agency USAID to design a hydrogen cartridge system that can be deployed to emerging market countries that lack developed electric grids. The DPS 300 – which stands for distributed power system – is a 300 watt unit about the size of a laptop or briefcase that can deliver 800 watt hours of energy to power a host of small to medium sized appliances, tools and gadgets.
According to Lefenfeld, a single hydrogen cartridge that costs less than $10 can provide enough power to filter over 1,000 gallons of water, power thousands of cell phones, illuminate LED lights for weeks, power point-of-care systems like hand held vaccination tools or refrigerate medicine.
The cartridges are filled with a powdery substance called sodium silicide that produces hydrogen gas when mixed with water. The technology has no carbon footprint and the powder – used in consumer products like toothpaste – is biodegradable.
SiGNa is also partnering with a company called MYFC – for my fuel cell – on a hydrogen solution called PowerTrekk that will soon be available at outdoor retailer REI. The PowerTrekk cartridges SiGNa is making are called “pucks,” will cost about $3 to $4 dollars and can recharge a fully-drained iPhone two times. The PowerTrekk system will reportedly cost around $200.
Tons of emissions come from lawn care” – Lefenfeld
Although the DPS is currently in the trial stage in the developing world, the technology could be used in the US to replace inefficient combustion engines like lawnmowers or portable generators. Single and double stroke engines account for 15% of US carbon emissions – “tons of emissions come from lawn care,” said Lefenfeld.
A downside is the chemicals are relatively expensive, making it uneconomic to scale up for larger applications. This would not be the technology that would power an office complex or manufacturing facility. “Natural gas wins out on a cost basis,” Lefenfeld said.
While this form of hydrogen generation technology would not power a large facility, it could supply a fleet of golf carts, fork lifts or electric bicycles to move employees around a large campus. “There are 120 million electric bikes in Asia,” he said, referring to another potential market.
The military has been a major source of funding for fuel cell technology and as warfare becomes more advanced, infantry soldiers will need to carry more laptops, communications systems and other devices that need to be recharged in the field. SiGNa’s cartridge solutions pile eight times less weight on the average soldier.
“This is ten times better than the best battery out there – it’s not quite [as energy dense as] gasoline, but it’s getting close,” said Lefenfeld.