Hydrogen revisited: solar breakthrough could finally lead to viability

I have never been impressed with claims that hydrogen will solve the problem of motor vehicle emissions. The “hydrogen economy” has been one massive oversell. It would take a major scientific breakthrough, I told one client, to make hydrogen viable as a transportation fuel. Well, it looks like that breakthrough may have occurred.

Scientists at Virginia Tech recently patented a process they claim splits hydrogen from water using solar light, by way of a sort of artificial photosynthesis. Many have tried to do this, but the main difficulty has always been finding a way to transfer two electrons to each water molecule in order to separate the hydrogen atoms.

This is radically different from conventional processes that split hydrogen from natural gas or water. The two main industrial processes for doing this, steam methane reformation (SMR) for natural gas and electrolysis for water, carry an inherent “negative energy balance.” The energy required to produce hydrogen is greater than the energy you get from the hydrogen. This makes you wonder if hydrogen production from these methods isn’t just an unnecessary novelty step—why don’t we just use the input energy as we would normally.

Plus, natural gas, currently the main feedstock for producing hydrogen, is already very expensive. This ensures that the end product will be even more expensive than the feedstock.

In the Virginia Tech process, solar-emitted photons strike catalytic structures made up of platinum group metal (PGM) atoms. This excites some electrons in the PGMs, inducing a charge transfer whereby the excited electrons “shuttle” to other PGM components in the catalytic structure. The latter collect the electrons two at a time. When this process takes place in water, the dual-electron shuttle across the structure components achieves the long-desired transfer of electrons to the water molecules, thereby releasing hydrogen.

A Toronto-based oil company, Phoenix Canada Oil Company (TSXV : PCO & OTC BB : PHXCF) has acquired a worldwide license to this technology and now wants to optimize it for production. Phoenix is looking for bright and energetic researchers in a Canadian university to develop a pilot production facility.

If this proves viable, the energy balance of hydrogen production changes from negative to positive. Solar light, as proponents like to say, is available as long as you know how to capture it. It’s also free, which means the economics of hydrogen production suddenly—and finally—make sense. This changes the picture radically.

Now, assume that this process does give us a low-cost and environment-friendly way to produce hydrogen. What then? Will we all be driving cars powered by fuel-cell-generated electricity? No. The gasoline-powered internal combustion engine will remain ubiquitous (it will be paired with an electric motor powered with rechargable batteries—the plug-in hybrid). But gasoline itself will undergo a dramatic transformation. Stay tuned.

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15 years ago

Im not impressed. Hydrogen is terrible stuff to handle. You cant distribute it through pipes because it corrodes the pipes too quickly. You cant distribute it with trucks because it is not dense enough – truck traffic would triple compared to gasoline. We want the trucks gone from the roads, not tripled. You cant handle it with ordinary tools like buckets because it has to be under pressure to reach a minimal density for even modest applications. And it will kill lots of people with explosions. Bad stuff, all around.

I dont know what solar photons are, but they sound like they are high entropy and intermittent, ie more trouble to work with than fission. A world without forests because we have put up a covering of photon collectors is not for me.

I dont know – the answer is just so obvious. Use electricity to move energy, use heavy elements to release high grade energy that we can use easily, and gradually improve transportation by electrifying it. Stop coal mining and combustion as quickly as we can, especially in India, China, USA.

Two technological advances are immanent that will make all this work really well. We can produce electricity from heat without using a turbine (ie no moving parts), and we can transmit electricity without using wires.



The real problems are not technological anyway. Will our clean, electric cities provide a life enhancing environment for people, animals, plants, and robots? If not, we are just wasting our time building an extinction trap.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Randal, I agree with just about everything in your comment. But the hydrogen application I hinted at involves its use as a feed for a new kind of fuel, not as fuel by itself. No liquid fuel is more efficient than gasoline. Like I said, stay tuned!

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[…] depend on developing an inexpensive source of hydrogen. I mentioned a breakthrough in exactly that back in October: a research team at an American university has successfully produced hydrogen from water using […]