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Experiment in Space to Aid Metal Powder as a Recyclable Fuel

May 25, 2017

Canada's McGill University believes that metal powders could be the key to clean energy in the future.

For the last 20 years, researchers at McGill have been studying how metal powders, such as iron, could be used as an alternative fuel source that produces zero carbon emissions. When burned, these powders are capable of producing more energy than an equivalent volume of gasoline. In lieu of carbon dioxide, the process releases only iron oxide, or rust, which is environmentally benign. What's more, the exhaust can be collected and recycled back into iron using renewable energy sources, creating a sustainable, closed loop system.

To further their study, researchers successfully launched an experiment into space on April 7 to study how metal particles react to weightlessness. On the ground, the metal powders settle too quickly and the hot combustion products rise and disrupt the experiments, but space provides ideal conditions to study metal's reaction.

"We have to expand our horizons, our vision of what a fuel is, and what are the possibilities. And when we look big enough, I think we find that metals are going to be the solution," said Jeffrey Bergthorson, professor, McGill University.

While McGill's experiment marks an important step forward for the future of metal fuel, researchers admit that the road to large-scale adoption will be a long one. More work needs to be done to advance the technology, but a lack of resources—namely the availability of researchers—presents a significant obstacle.

"To put it all together into a real technology, we're going to need a lot of other people to help us on this," said Anthony Higgins, one of the McGill researchers. "We hope people will continue to collaborate with us to keep advancing the technology."

To learn more about the experiement, watch this video.

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