Exactly. At least this is what McGill University professor Jeffrey Bergthorson has stated in his study, recently published by the Applied Energy scientific journal. Bergthorson claims metal powders can be the safest and most environmental-friendly way to store, use and transport 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,” he declared to the McGill website.
Burning these metal powders would produce nothing more than metal oxides, easily recyclable by-products. The energy that is generated by this burning process can be used by external combustion engines, such as the steam engine that has powered boats and trains in the 19th century. Cars also used steam for propulsion, as this video from Jay Leno’s Garage confirms. And what a car the 1925 Doble E 20 was! 1,356 Nm of torque from zero and no need of a transmission! A top speed of 213 km/h in 1925!
It could also be used to generate electricity, by moving the rotors of a turbine, the same way nuclear, biomass or coal power plants do. Metal powder could be easily used to store energy and send it abroad with little risk of explosion, as hydrogen may offer. And metal powders are produced in millions of tons every year for a wide variety of uses in electronic, chemical and metallurgy industries.
One of the main candidates for such application is iron, but the study has shown a wide variety of metals can be used, such as aluminum and zirconium. The researchers have used a custom-built burner to demonstrate that the flame of the burned metal powders can be stabilized. The metal powders are carried inside the burner suspended in air. Compare below the flames generated by different sorts of fuel and metal powders. Aren’t they similar?
With the feasibility of the use fully proven, the next step is developing a prototype burner coupled to an external combustion engine. “Developing metal recycling processes that don’t involve CO2 emissions is also critical”, said Bergthorson. With the current low on commodities, metal prices may have a good reason for going up. Oil, on the other hand, may take a long time to recover. If ever.