Mark A. Philbrick
Chemical engineering professor Dean Wheeler shows a fuel cell — basically a battery with a gas tank — that harvests electricity from carbohydrates. It was developed by BYU researchers.

PROVO — It's not quite as simple as plugging your laptop into a can of soda, but a team of BYU researchers is hoping to give the world a sweeter, cheaper source of power through the abundant glucose molecule.

"We're always searching for better sources of electrical power," said Dean Wheeler, a chemical engineering professor in BYU's Fulton College of Engineering and Technology. "We've been saying for 20 years that fuel cells were just around the corner. But it's a very tough challenge to get the cost down."

Normal hydrogen fuel cells — like little batteries with gas tanks — require costly platinum in order to convert the hydrogen into electrical energy.

So, Wheeler and recently retired chemistry professor Gerald Watt began experimenting with two cheaper, easier-to-obtain sources: glucose and a common herbicide.

The professors and their student team tapped into the energy produced in plants by the sun during photosynthesis by reacting the glucose with common weed killer as the catalyst.

The reaction broke electrons from the glucose molecule, which were transferred by the herbicide to an electrode, resulting in electrical energy, according to the group's paper, which came out in the October issue of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

Not only is it a clean energy source, with byproducts of water and carbon dioxide, but glucose is everywhere, Watt said.

Although it's a long way down the road, Watt envisions cities with factories devoted to extracting energy from tons of grass clippings and cardboard boxes that are rich in cellulose, or strings of glucose molecules.

"It's going to take a lot to get there, but I think we've started down that path," Watt said. "This has been a long-term goal to utilize glucose as a power source and I think we've made a good inroad."

The project is still in lab-size dimensions right now, meaning the sugar cell can't power much more than an LED light, Wheeler says. However, once they perfect the technology, they could tackle the demand for power from things like cell phones, laptops, household appliances or, maybe someday, cars.

Wheeler said he sees this technology benefiting Third World countries where installing a power grid would be out of the question, but the villagers could use a few pieces of fruit or plant waste to power a computer or lights.

"It's exciting that (this research is) getting recognized," said Joe Nichols, a senior in chemical engineering who worked on the project. "It shows there's a lot of potential for bio fuels and plant matter. It may not be THE answer, but it is one tool that we're going to have ... to generate energy."

The focus now is making the fuel cell more effective, so it uses more than seven of the 24 available electrons. Then there's the issue of power density, which is how much power can be pulled out of a certain size of fuel cell.

"You wouldn't want to have a fuel cell as big as a fridge just to power your laptop," Wheeler said. "Even if it was really efficient, it's not practical if it is too big."