Electricity Direct from Coal

At a time when only 10% of the chemical energy in coal was converted into mechanical energy in a steam engine, Ostwald (1894) perceived electrochemistry as the solution to the inefficient energy conversion process. Ostwald was dismayed that the only energy that could be harnessed in a steam engine was between the boiler and the condenser, and that the energy of burning the coal to raise the temperature was lost. Instead of losing this amount, he proposed that using electrochemistry was a better way — one that converted energy without heat — so that the entire energy content of coal could be won. His hope was to produce electricity from coal by electrochemical processes, but it was uncertain how the galvanic item would be created. Ostwald did refer to an attempt by Jablochkoff (1877 in Ostwald, 1894), who used saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in an attempt to produce electricity directly from coal. Ostwald also recommended the search for a different electrolyte, one that would not be consumed in the reaction.

Jacques (1896) built fuel cells that produced electricity from coal, but Haber and Bruner (1904) determined the electrochemical reaction to have been first between the coal and the electrolyte and then with the electrode; therefore, instead of the direct oxidation of coal, the Jacques cell was "indirect." Baur and Ehrenberg (1912) tested several types of electrolytes, including hydroxide, carbonate, silicate, and borate. A mixture of alkali metal carbonates was used by Baur and Brunner (1935), who found that CO2 supplied to the cathode improved the performance of the fuel cell. Because the molten electrolyte flooded the electrodes, Baur and Brunner (1937) concluded that a solid electrolyte was more suitable and began investigating ceramic materials.

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Guide to Alternative Fuels

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