With up to 80 percent of the weight of a soldier's gear attributable to batteries, the U.S. Army is obviously interested in replacement technologies that deliver a reliable, reusable power source. Chemical Engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey believe their invention of a microreactor that can convert everyday fossil fuels such as butane and propane into pure hydrogen for fuel cell batteries might be the answer.

Although we've looked at numerous promising breakthroughs in the field of hydrogen production, current methods require high temperatures and a vacuum to produce the plasma required for the necessary chemical reaction. Another problem with hydrogen is that once it is produced, it is highly volatile, making it dangerous and expensive to transport - not to mention a good explosive target for enemy combatants looking to get a bang for their bullet.

The Stevens team says its microreactor overcomes both the production and storage problems by using low temperatures and atmospheric pressure, and by producing hydrogen only as needed.

Using cutting-edge microfabrication techniques, similar to those used to manufacture plasma TV screens, the team was able to produce plasma under normal atmosphere.

So far the team has had success producing hydrogen from methanol by first gasifying the methanol and suspending it in hot nitrogen gas. The mixture is then drawn into a 25µm channel in the microreactor where it reacts with plasma to cause thermal decomposition and breaking down the methanol into its elemental components.

The Stevens research team is now conducting tests to see what kind of yields are possible from different starter fuels with the aim of eventually providing soldiers with the ability to convert everyday liquid fuels commonly found on military bases, such as butane and propane, into hydrogen for portable fuel cell batteries.