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US Researchers Announce Possible Oil Replacement.

by ManfromMiddletown 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:

  1.  The researchers have announced that the process produces no toxic fumes, emitting only water and recycable aluminium oxide as byproducts.

  2. 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.

  3.  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.

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The potential for this development to signal a real shift away from oil is amazing.  I wrote this for an American audience over at Daily Kos.  But I think that the implications are global.  Imagine being able to convert intermittent renewable energy production into a medium that can be stored for long periods, and replace gasoline.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg
by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 02:04:04 PM EST
Interesting article and prospects for similar chemical concoctions with more available agents, i.e., more available than gallium, might ensue.

Sounds like what we used to do as kids to fuel lighter than air balloons by mixing aluminium and water with lye.  Produced hydrogen also, I believe, but was probably dangerous and also yielded noxious fumes.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 10:54:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Aluminium is infinitely recyclable, but you'd still need a hell of a lot of it to fuel all the cars we'd want. And gallium would be the big question...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 02:57:29 PM EST
I think that starting it out in limited uses would be a good start.  I know that Energize American targeted vehicle fleets for this reason.  I'm think that (relatively) fixed uses like farming, industry, and trucking would be a good start.  Ultimately, I think any new technology is going to have to start in those areas of the economy.  Because they require the least change in the distribution system.

On Kos, I mentioned that theoretically, the patent for this is held by the State of Indiana, through the Purdue Research Foundation.  Which should make the commercialization process very interesting.  If this works out, this is a lot of money that were talking about, it's a question of where that money goes.  Remember it was state spending that made this development happen.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 03:23:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Privatize the universities, hell, privatize Indiana. How can I be a capitalista if I can't buy stock in these socialist organizations. No wonder Indiana was called a red state.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 07:42:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Gallium is only used to stop the oxidation and to dissolve the aluminium.

it is likely there are some others ways to do that.

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 05:49:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Google tells me that 1g of Gallium costs $3 at current low-demand prices.

There are 454g in a pound, so one pound of Gallium costs $1362.

I don't know what the ratio of Al/Ga would be in this magic alloy, but assuming it's 10:1 in favour of Al - somewhat conservative - you're looking at a tank that costs $47,670 to make if there are 350 pounds of Al.

If it's 1:1 it's more like half a million.

Even at 100:1 you still have a tank that costs nearly $5,000.

This would make cars very, very valuable commodities - possibly even more so than they are now.

The press release doesn't specify the amount of gallium needed.

Maybe someone should call them and ask?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 03:52:41 PM EST
USGS quotes a significantly lower price for gallium.

Now that is a 2005 price, but still this is significantly lower.  I think that purity matters here. Not cheap, but since it's able to be recycled, as a capital cost $1000 or $2000 isn't a huge price tage.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 04:26:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's another problem, which is how increased demand might change the price. If a material is produced from an ore, it may be easy to ramp up production. Gallium, though, is mostly produced as a by-product of aluminium production. Unless other sources are developed (the flue-ash mentioned in the article?), the production of gallium will be limited to being a small fraction of the production of aluminium -- aluminium ore contains about 50 parts per million. On the other hand, it may be that most of this potential by-product isn't extracted at present, which would leave more room for growth in production.

Total annual world production a few years ago was estimated to be 61 tons, so growth would presumably have to be huge, in percentage terms.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 05:14:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This pdf says 34% of gallium use goes to semiconductors. I don't know where the rest goes but that isn't exactly massive demand.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 01:03:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, great. Biofuels lead to peak corn and this new oil replacement to peak electronics.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 03:08:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That level of purity is destined for semiconductor use, and all those 9's you see are the main component of the price. The press release indicates that "low grade ore" is all that is needed, leading me think that its natural occurrence in Aluminum ore is fairly close to the concentration needed for this process. Solar cells are in a similar boat as I talked about some months ago - semiconductor quality silicon (of the grade that goes to make your CPU) is overkill for solar cells.

This is the first new tech that I have had good vibes about since I started studying peak oil. Breaking down water with a common earth element? Gimmie.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 01:17:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Aluminum is one of the most electricity-consuming manufacturing processes around, so it stands to reason that there is a lot of energy 'embedded' in aluminum.

It does sound promising - noting of course, that it only moves the problem to electricity generation, where there are a lot of options, but where those currently used are also problematic (coal, gas, nuclear, etc...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 10:53:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm sorry, but this seems ridiculous. Aluminum is obtained from naturally ocurring Aluminum oxides. We are told upthread that Gallium is "mostly obtained as a byproduct of aluminum production_. In other words:

  • you mine ores rich in Aluminum oxide
  • you extract metallic Aluminum from it (and Gallium as a by-product) by means of an energy-intensive process
  • you then recombine the Aluminum and Gallium to obtain Aluminum oxide and Hydrogen

There is no free lunch here, might as well use the electricity spent producing the Aluminum for ordinary electrolysis of water.

By the way, the reason Gallium is an impurity in Aluminum oxides is that Aluminum and Gallium are chemically similar [both contiguous elements in the the Earth Metal (s2p1) series, Al is 1s2 2s2p6 3s2p1 and Gallium is 1s2 2s2p6 3s2p6 4s2d10p1].

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 11:06:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... not an energy source, so what they are describing in reducing transport and storage problems is a better battery.

And better batteries are the ongoing holy grail for EV's.

Now, using hydrogen as a benchmark is, of course, making it sound much better than it may be, since as a battery, hydrogen sucks really bad. Being much better than hydrogen is something we have already accomplished, so the question becomes compared to other batteries, how effective is this.

It would seem that what it really has going for it is stability ... one presumes that it is not going to discharge on its own even if not tapped for hydrogen for weeks at a time. So I would think that the most likely use for this is for the back up power supply component in PHEV's, which is presently provided by gasoline/diesel.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 11:56:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It makes a whole lot more sense, energetically and in terms of takign advantage of existing infrastructure, to use electric power to produce synthetic hydrocarbons.

The only advantage of this over pure hydrogen is that storing Aluminum and Gallium in a "just add water!" hydrogen fuel cell is easier than handling pure hydrogen. But the result of this is to produce Aluminum oxide from recycled aluminum, so the spent fuel cells would have to be recycled into Aluminum-production again. Also, I am not convinced the Gallium will catalyse as oppose to being consumed and ending up as impurities in the Aluminum Oxide.

This scheme will result in making Aluminum, Gallium and electric power more expensive, and no reuse of existing liquid fuel infrastructure.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:03:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The thing is, if there is a carbon slurry (or other carbon source) going into a direct carbon fuel cell, that is likely to be more power per kg of fuel than water plus aluminum/gallium pellets.

And carbon powder can be created from biomass through direct charcoal conversion, giving very good transportability and stability.

But altogether I'd rather bike to the closest electric train and let the train operator worry about dragging the motors and brakes and all of that around. That way I don't have to park anything in front of the house.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:57:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A version of this comment crossposted on DKos.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 11:58:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... is playing the role of a catalyst rather than consumed in the process (at least from the write up), so if its 10:1 per tankful, then over 100 tankfuls its 1,000:1, and over 1,000 tankfuls 10,000:1.

And if the impurities in Gallium that mess up the formation of micron scale electronics are not a problem for the process, then 99% pure Gallium would be a lot cheaper $3/gram.

On the other hand, its really a fueled-battery, and the real comparison would be with charged-batteries and other fueled-batteries ... its cheating a bit to compare it with hydrogen, which under present technology really sucks as a power storage approach.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:02:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Aluminium is a reactive metal that is difficult to extract from ore, aluminium oxide (Al2O3). Direct reduction -- with carbon, for example -- is not economically viable since aluminium oxide has a melting point of about 2,000 °C. Therefore, it is extracted by electrolysis; that is, the aluminium oxide is dissolved in molten cryolite and then reduced to the pure metal. By this process, the operational temperature of the reduction cells is around 950 to 980 °C. Cryolite is found as a mineral in Greenland, but in industrial use it has been replaced by a synthetic substance. Cryolite is a mixture of aluminium, sodium, and calcium fluorides: (Na3AlF6). The aluminium oxide (a white powder) is obtained by refining bauxite in the Bayer process. (Previously, the Deville process was the predominant refining technology.)

...

Recovery of the metal via recycling has become an important facet of the aluminium industry. Recycling involves melting the scrap, a process that uses only five percent of the energy needed to produce aluminium from ore.[8] Recycling was a low-profile activity until the late 1960s, when the growing use of aluminium beverage cans brought it to the public consciousness.

Electric power represents about 20% to 40% of the cost of producing aluminium, depending on the location of the smelter. Smelters tend to be situated where electric power is both plentiful and inexpensive, such as South Africa, the South Island of New Zealand, Australia, the People's Republic of China, the Middle East, Russia, Quebec and British Columbia in Canada, and Iceland.

I presume this 20%-40% is for the extraction of Aluminum from Bauxite ore, and that recycling aluminum takes only 5% of that. However, note that the proposed process will start from (presumably) recycled Aluminum and then produce Aluminum Oxide (so we go back toward Bauxite).
Most gallium is extracted from the crude aluminium hydroxide solution of the Bayer process for producing alumina and aluminum. A mercury cell electrolysis and hydrolysis of the amalgam with sodium hydroxide leads to sodium gallate. Electrolysis then gives gallium metal. For semiconductor use, further purification is carried out using zone melting, or else single crystal extraction from a melt (Czochralski process). Purities of 99.9999% are routinely achieved and commercially widely available.
As I said in a comment upthread, I don't believe this process is any better, energetically, than straight electrolysis of water.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 11:40:50 AM EST
... gallium and alumina are the byproducts of the reaction, so that the gallium eloctrolysis only has to be performed once ... after the allow has split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, you are basically left at the end of the Bayer process, with gallium and alumina.

Whether this is better than straight electrolysis does not depend on how much energy it takes to make the aluminum alloy when recycling the alumina and gallium ... it depends on how much of that energy is recovered when water is added to the alloy to split off the hydrogen.

But it should be noted that it has to beat electrolysis by a good long way to be better than closed-cycle modular pumped storage hydro for something like storing off-peak and strong-wind power from wind power ... starting up a hydro system (either in the downhil discharge mode or the uphill recharge mode) is something that can be done quite quickly ... indeed, if the pumps are running, increasing or decreasing their speed can pretty much be done in real time. Its harder to imagine cranking up a smelter process with a couple of minutes notice because there was a gust of wind over Lake Erie.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:14:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the additional detail.

The only reason I can see for implementing this process is to ride the Hydrogen Economy boondoggle.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:18:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... because of the hydrogen economy boondoggle, hence the comparison to the artificially low hurdle of being better than gaseous hydrogen transport and stored to feed hydrogen fuel cells.

That doesn't mean I am 100% against boondoggles ... I just want the boondoggles to be 30% or less than the real renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. The real R&D will have such a big payoff that it can carry 30% political overhead with breaking a sweat.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 19th, 2007 at 12:33:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, it's a boondoggle but you never know what's going to come out of research and, more important, when it's going to be useful.

If it wasn't for the Haber-Bosch process originally done to make artificial fertilizer millions of people wouldn't have died in and from World War I!

(OK, not the best example in the world.)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 11:43:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, the research is cool if you're a chemist, but the press release is self-serving, and an "amazing breakthrough" towards a boondoggle is still a boondoggle. Good for Purdue, maybe they can milk the federal budget with stuff like this and invest the preceeds in developing their university.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 05:06:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The notion of binding hydrogen in various metallic compounds and then releasing it on demand via a catalyst is an old one for Hydrogen Powered Vehicles;  it's one of the very few ways out of the difficulty of keeping hydrogen (small slippery stuff) in tanks, hoses, etc.

I must say this sounds like a very energy-expensive method of storing energy and I think I agree with the poster who prefers to bike to the nearest e-train :-)  There's a presupposition in a lot of these "gee wow, here comes the cavalry" articles on energy that the Almighty Automobile is the immutable term and we have to go through whatever shenanigans are necessary to maintain it.  The problem may get much simpler if you factor the Almighty Auto (the Sacred Cow of the industrialised nations) out of the picture and think about smaller/lighter mobility devices plus excellent  rail and water networks.

Also of course, as an aluminium customer (for boat parts) I rather dislike the idea of the metal suddenly becoming a trendy snake-oil investment oppo -- just what I need is a Tulip Bubble in aluminium when I'm shopping (somewhat ineptly) for industrial pipe...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 02:47:26 AM EST
People want transportation on demand and they don't want to think through the ramifications. They will accept any haze of logomachian obfuscation and all snake-oil selling flim-flam artists aiding and comforting their little desires.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 11:52:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Even if a "new energy cavalry" would exist (defying the current understanding of thermodynamics), the overhaul from the oil-based to a new infractructure would be just stupendous - how many engines and cars would have to be replaced, how many gas stations discarded? Who will the suffer costs of the overhaul? Gosh, do we have realistically enough aluminium (or whatever material) to run billions of cars? Maybe we would be just better off sucking oil still.

Besides, is it comfortable to be so dependent on a team of lucky inventors?

Praying for a technological breakthrough just in time is like expecting salvation from a higher power in the face of Rapture - the modern "rational" faith is no different from old Christian myths, after all.

by das monde on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 04:31:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
the overhaul from the oil-based to a new infractructure would be just stupendous - how many engines and cars would have to be replaced, how many gas stations discarded? Who will the suffer costs of the overhaul?

That is why I think the only realistic way forward is synthetic hydrocarbons from renewable electricity. Synthetic hydrocarbons are carbon-neutral, too.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 05:04:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Will we have enough renewable electivity for all synthetic hydrocarbons we "need"? The tempo of renewability is limited.
by das monde on Tue May 22nd, 2007 at 03:49:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, but at least we can piggyback on the existing transport infrastructure.

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue May 22nd, 2007 at 05:28:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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