Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Hydrogen Extraction Improvements


WIRED has an article about a company using a photoelectric process to extract hydrogen from water at a much higher efficiency than electrolysis. Nanotech plays a big part in the process which is touted at 10% efficiency, and doesn't use expensive materials like palladium. This development matches my instincts about how technology in the next quarter century will largely grow as a result of advancements in materials science.

My friend Les Jones points out correctly that hydrogen is not a fuel unto itself, but rather just a transfer medium. The idea that petro and coal are "real" fuels just because you easily dig them out of the ground and burn them however, is in my opinion a tad flawed. Gooey or compressed carbon from dead dinosaurs and prehistoric plants is not a fuel unto itself. They also are energy storage mediums. The difference is that they were infused with their potential energy endothermically by means of a single thermonuclear source located 96 million miles away.

Hydrogen does in fact burn, just like dead dinosaurs and peat, but it does not come with an endothermic front-load. Currently that is achieved by a more than equal expenditure of energy and materials. The techniques include the sacrifice of raw materials such as iron and acid - refinement from fossil fuels (which ironically contain goodly amounts of hydrogen) - or electrolysis. Electrolysis has traditionally been seen as carrying the best prospects for mass production of hydrogen since the separative power could by provided by the sun, hydroelectric and so forth - but it still requires expenditure of precious materials like palladium. Without an advancement in extraction efficiency though, hydrogen would never be competitive with fossil fuels or even synthetic fuels from plants since its production is so expensive. A big improvement in efficiency from new materials science could change that.

Even when (not if) hydrogen extraction achieves 10%+ efficiency, it still faces many challenges for widespread implimentation. The main ones are from infrastructure. I don't think safe handling of hydrogen is anywhere close to the bugaboo that some people say. Numerous methods of storing it in non-cryogenic and non-reactive containers have been developed in the past few years. And it is no more explosive or dangerous than gasoline. Getting hydrogen dispensers installed in gas stations and getting them fueled would be a challenge for making cars run off of it. A early place one might expect to see such use could be the autobahn. Germany is not a large country, so distribution methods are more easily tested there. The roads are built to high tolerances allowing for safer transport, and service access exists at regular intervals. That might be the kind of place you'd see an experiment with hydrogen - especially considering German automakers are more serious about it than others.

Eventually we will see hydrogen used in many aspects of day to day life. In fairness to critics it will always work like a battery, just a storage medium for front-loaded energy via extraction. But it will be a clean battery, and new advancements in materials science may make that process efficient enough to be competitive. Time will tell.


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