Fri May 18th, 2007 at 01:59:46 PM EST
Reuters has an article up today about an important research breakthrough by researchers at Purdue University in Indiana that could lead to the widespread replacement of gasoine by aluminium as the fuel of choice for American motorists. Through a process mixing aluminium with gallium in water, researchers were able to yield hydrogen through a process that costs about $3/gallon.
In the experiment conducted at Purdue University in Indiana, "The hydrogen is generated on demand, so you only produce as much as you need when you need it," said Jerry Woodall, an engineering professor at Purdue who invented the system.
Woodall said in a statement the hydrogen would not have to be stored or transported, taking care of two stumbling blocks to generating hydrogen.
For now, the Purdue scientists think the system could be used for smaller engines like lawn mowers and chain saws. But they think it would work for cars and trucks as well, either as a replacement for gasoline or as a means of powering hydrogen fuel cells.
I've applied my highly developed sense of skepticism to this announcement, yet, after reading through the press release released by the university, I'm amazed. One of the principle problems in transitioning to a hyrdogen economy is that hydrogen is very hard to transport. This process allows the materials to be transported in much more efficient solid state.
"Most people don't realize how energy intensive aluminum is," Woodall said. "For every pound of aluminum you get more than two kilowatt hours of energy in the form of hydrogen combustion and more than two kilowatt hours of heat from the reaction of aluminum with water. A midsize car with a full tank of aluminum-gallium pellets, which amounts to about 350 pounds of aluminum, could take a 350-mile trip and it would cost $60, assuming the alumina is converted back to aluminum on-site at a nuclear power plant.
"How does this compare with conventional technology? Well, if I put gasoline in a tank, I get six kilowatt hours per pound, or about two and a half times the energy than I get for a pound of aluminum. So I need about two and a half times the weight of aluminum to get the same energy output, but I eliminate gasoline entirely, and I am using a resource that is cheap and abundant in the United States. If only the energy of the generated hydrogen is used, then the aluminum-gallium alloy would require about the same space as a tank of gasoline, so no extra room would be needed, and the added weight would be the equivalent of an extra passenger, albeit a pretty large extra passenger."
The concept could eliminate major hurdles related to developing a hydrogen economy. Replacing gasoline with hydrogen for transportation purposes would require the production of huge quantities of hydrogen, and the hydrogen gas would then have to be transported to filling stations. Transporting hydrogen is expensive because it is a "non-ideal gas," meaning storage tanks contain less hydrogen than other gases.
"If I can economically make hydrogen on demand, however, I don't have to store and transport it, which solves a significant problem," Woodall said.
There are three key points I want to make to highlight the strengths of this process:
- The researchers have announced that the process produces no toxic fumes, emitting only water and recycable aluminium oxide as byproducts.
- Dr. Woodall suggests that windpower could be a key electricity source for the smelting of aluminum, and the recyling of aluminium oxide. Handled properly, this could make windpower projects much more profitable by allowing power produced during non-peak periods to be used to create aluminium. Also, in the long term it could used as a method to tame the intermittment nature of many renewable power sources by creating an efficient storage medium. I've written before on the enormous windpower potential of the Great Lakes, and the storage problems created by the intermittment strength of the wind there.
- Gallium is an extremely rare metal not currently produced in the United States. Given that China is the largest global producer, this raises significant issues when considering the geopolitics of a hydrogen economy. Exchanging one hostile supplier for another, greater geopolitical threat hardly makes sense. Fortunately, the gallium is not used in the process, and is able to be used again. And Aluminium is far less rare and much produced in large quanities in the US and friendly nations like Canada and Australia.
This is simply an amazing breakthrough, and if it is able to be commercialized on a large scale, could bring significant geopolitical change as the OPEC oil states are marginalized at the expense of nations wealthy in renewable energy sources and deposits of bauxite like Australia ,Russia ,and Brazil.