Hydrogen research continues, and that’s a good thing

One of my recent Clean Break columns looks at attempts to lower the cost of hydrogen production, with specific reference to a project at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. UOIT professors Greg Naterer and Ibrahim Dincer are attempting to building a machine that can create hydrogen from sunlight and water by simulating photosynthesis, an approach based on research conducted at Virginia Tech. Researchers there, led by Professor Karen Brewer, have developed a super molecule that acts as a photocatalyst. When sunlight is shined on water containing this catalyst, it breaks the hydrogen-oxygen bond and releases the hydrogen for collection. Photocatalysts offer a low-energy approach to breaking this H20 bond, compared to steam-methane reforming or electrolysis, but the problem with past efforts is that the catalysts were consumed in the process. This creates the need for a constant supply of catalyst, which can become costly. The photocatalyst developed by Brewer’s team is not consumed — it can be recycled over and over again, which is why the approach shows so much promise. It has been demonstrated to work in the lab, now UOIT has been charged with building a prototype machine that can demonstrate the technology at scale. It has received $900,000 in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Toronto-based Phoenix Canada Oil Co., which owns the rights to Virginia Tech’s technology. For more detail check out the article.

There are many efforts to turn the sun’s energy into fuel — such as hydrogen, syngas, etc. — and the U.S. Department of Energy recently committed $122 million toward such research. Indeed, Professor Daniel Nocera at MIT has been leading the charge, and is now involved with a company called Sun Catalytix which is aiming to commercialize a process invented by Nocera. If we can figure out how to produce large amounts of hydrogen in a clean and low-cost way it can lead to affordable energy storage and, some day, even fuel for transportation.

I got into a little exchange with Prof. Naterer about the potential for hydrogen-powered transportation. In my column I wrote that “Hydrogen-powered cars might not be in the cards for the next two or three decades.” This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not. Figuring out how to produce hydrogen in a clean and low-cost way is only one of several challenges. There are still massive infrastructure challenges associated with hydrogen-powered transportation, and given that we’re moving rapidly toward battery-powered vehicles I don’t see hydrogen cars coming in the foreseeable future. Naterer took issue with this comment. “Unfortunately this misinformation sets back efforts of many institutions, companies and organizations that are trying to facilitate the promising clean energy carrier of the future for the benefit of future generations and our planet,” he wrote me in an e-mail. He cited Honda and others promising much larger mass production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2015 “at ranges much longer and prices much lower than most anticipate.” The problem is, we’ve heard that promise before — several times in fact. The date keeps getting pushed ahead by five years. Didn’t we hear this in the late 1990s from Ballard Power? I explained my skepticism to Naterer, who replied: “Once a clean, cheap supply of hydrogen becomes available, the whole situation with hydrogen changes. When the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen becomes lower than a gallon of gasoline, the paradigm shift will occur.”

Certainly, that turning point will happen, but I don’t think the transition will be so quick. In the words of Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba professor who has become one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors on energy issues, “Wishful thinking, pioneering enthusiasm, and belief in the efficacy of seemingly superior solutions are not enough to change the fundamental nature of gradually unfolding energy transitions, be they shifts to new fuels, to new modes of electricity generation, or to new prime movers.”

I see low-cost, clean hydrogen production first having an impact on industry and power generation (storage) before having a measurable impact on transportation.

5 thoughts on “Hydrogen research continues, and that’s a good thing”

  1. Tyler, you should read Dincer’s book on thermal energy storage. You should also do an article on the thermal borehole field under UOIT. Biggest in the world I believe.

  2. Until hydrogen comes of age, more efficient use of gasoline is the intermediate goal. A few years ago, Science Daily put out an article on on a physicist’s invention to improve gasoline efficiency through the use of an electrical that reduced the size of gasoline particles, thus increasing surface area resulting in much improved combustion.
    “According to Rongjia Tao, Chair of Temple’s Physics Department, the small device consists of an electrically charged tube that can be attached to the fuel line of a car’s engine near the fuel injector. With the use of a power supply from the vehicle’s battery, the device creates an electric field that thins fuel, or reduces its viscosity, so that smaller droplets are injected into the engine. That leads to more efficient and cleaner combustion than a standard fuel injector, he says.
    Six months of road testing in a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz automobile showed that the device increased highway fuel from 32 miles per gallon to 38 mpg, a 20 percent boost, and a 12-15 percent gain in city driving.”
    Now after 2 years of development, it will come out on the market.

  3. My views on hydrogen as a fuel were strongly influenced by Joe Romm’s book _The Hype About Hydrogen_. He shot down most of the assumptions he found wanting in works like Jeremy Rifkin’s _The Hydrogen Economy_.
    I recall seeing an argument (perhaps by Romm or by Dr. Smil? I’ve forgotten where) that hydrogen make by electrolysis will always be handicapped by basic thermodynamics particularly as a means of storing available cheap electricity for later use – e.g. storing power from a wind farm when the wind is strong but power demand is very low such as at night. The thermodynamic problem is that electrolysis starts with liquid water, while any power generator consuming hydrogen as fuel – whether a fuel cell, or even an internal combustion engine burning hydrogen – will exhaust water vapor. Thus the full cycle efficiency is reduced by the latent heat of vaporization of the water – i.e. the energy it took to “boil” the water that started as liquid before the hydrolysis is all lost.
    Now, for this new case of solar catalytic hydrolysis, this objection is mostly beside the point; if the catalytic method can be done economically, it offers a way to turn abundant sunlight directly into available hydrogen for use as a fuel or energy store and carrier generally. This could be quite significant if it proves feasible.

  4. Photocatalysis of H2O has enormous potential to rid the world of its oil addiction. As a designer of electric transportation, I know first hand the limitations of battery technology for dependable, long range transportation. Plants store the energy of catalyzed H2O in the form of hydrocarbons and many researchers are trying to turn those hydrocarbons into useable fuel even by using exotic microbes such as genetically modified E.Coli as in the case of butanol production (Professor Laio of UCLA). Butanol has a higher potential to replace gasoline than does ethanol because IC engines can run on pure butanol with very few modifications. In addition, butanol can be transported through pipelines similar to gasoline. Ethanol production is keeping U.S. farmers busy, but does not have the potential that butanol does because we cannot produce enough corn or sugar for our transportation energy needs. Butanol can be produced from virtually any biomass, but its production remains limited and expensive due to the low output of butanol even from genetically modified microbes. British Petroleum (Yes, infamous BP) and DuPont have dedicated $500M to try and advance butanol production, but the price of butanol remains non-competitve as a fuel. Perhaps, the best hope utilizing plant life to create useable fuel is algal oil. The scientific research department of the U.S. Army known as DARPA claims to be able to produce algal oil now for about $1 per gallon if done on a large scale. Algal oil can be easily converted to biodiesel and this appears to be the most promising area of fuel production from plant life…..but, if efficient photocatlysis of H2O becomes a reality as Dr. Daniel Nocera of MIT claims it will, then we could be entering a new era of a hydrogen economy. UOIT professors Greg Naterer and Ibrahim Dincer hopefully are on the right track.

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