Burning fossil fuels has long been the practice for satisfying our energy needs. And we’re paying the price. Fossil fuels has exacted an enormous toll on the world, creating tremendous amounts of air and water pollution. Due to its high carbon content, fossil fuels contribute to global warming and encourages environmental destruction.


A Potential Solution?


A McGill-led research points to metal powders as a potential long-term replacement for fossil fuels. According to a 2015 study from the journal Applied Energy, metal powders could provide a more viable solution than other widely discussed alternatives such as hydrogen, biofuels or batteries. McGill University professor, Jeffrey Bergthorson and lead author of this study, states:

“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.”

Although biofuels can be part of the solution, it won’t be able to satisfy all the demands. Hydrogen, for example, requires large and heavy fuel tanks and is dangerously explosive, while batteries are too bulky and do not have enough energy-storing capabilities to be used in many applications.

However, Bergthorson stated that “using metal powders as recyclable fuels that store clean primary energy for later use is a very promising alternative solution.”

The journal, co-authored by Bergthorson with five other McGill researchers and a European Space Agency scientist in the Netherlands, details the concept of using fine metal particles to power external combustion engines. Unlike the internal-combustion engines (gasoline-powered cars), external-combustion engines use heat from an outside source to create usable energy. Burning metal fuels, which react with air to form stable metals, have the potential to create non-toxic solid-oxide products that can be collected easily for recycling. Technically feasible, further laboratory work and prototype-building is now the next step.

Metal-fueled heat engines are predicted to be close to current fossil-fueled engines in terms of energy and power densities. With its low-carbon emissions and zero CO2 potential, researchers at McGill and the European Space Agency continue developing metal recycling processes that will help us shift away from fossil fuels.