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.