May 18, 2007 10:29 AM PDT

Producing hydrogen with water and a little metal

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Although many people are skeptical about hydrogen becoming a source of fuel, it certainly isn't slowing down research into making the stuff.

Purdue University professor Jerry Woodall has discovered a way to make hydrogen out of a reaction of water and an alloy of aluminum and gallium. The production technique eliminates the need to store hydrogen, he said. Mixing water and pellets made up of the alloy in a tank can produce fuel for a small engine, or conceivably a car.

The process, along with other recent hydrogen developments, could work to dispel some of the criticism of hydrogen as a fuel source in the coming decades. Although it's the most abundant element in the universe, producing hydrogen for commercial applications is expensive and generates greenhouse gases. Prototype hydrogen-fuel-cell cars also run close to a million dollars. Proponents, including some researchers at national labs, believe that if cheap, nonpolluting production methods can be achieved, hydrogen power might make its way into some types of motors.

Aluminum has a strong urge to react with oxygen, which is why aluminum is an accelerant in rocket fuel. The aluminum thus extracts the oxygen from water and frees up hydrogen from the water molecule.

In ordinary circumstances, a skin would form over the aluminum, preventing further reactions.

The Purdue Research Foundation holds title to the primary patent, which has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and is pending. An Indiana start-up company, AlGalCo, is licensing the patent and will try to commercialize the idea.

Woodall estimates that the technique could produce fuel that would compete with gas at $3 a gallon (assuming current prices for aluminum, which are above $1 a pound). The actual fuel would be more expensive, but because hydrogen engines are more efficient, the cost difference would dissipate.

Woodall discovered that hydrogen could be produced out of water, aluminum and gallium while working in the semiconductor industry in 1967. Woodall, some students and AlGalCo are now trying to refine the process for manufacturing.

"I was cleaning a crucible containing liquid alloys of gallium and aluminum. When I added water to this alloy--talk about a discovery--there was a violent poof. I went to my office and worked out the reaction in a couple of hours to figure out what had happened. When aluminum atoms in the liquid alloy come into contact with water, they react, splitting the water and producing hydrogen and aluminum oxide," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, others are working on hydrogen solutions, too. Ecotality has come up with a way to produce hydrogen with magnesium oxide pellets, while New York's Signa Chemistry says it can pull hydrogen out a reaction from sodium, water and silicon.

Stanford University professor James Swartz, by contrast, has found a microorganism that takes sunlight and splits water molecules. Swartz's work has generated a start-up called Fundamental Applied Biology.

Fuel cell makers are also trying to come up with vehicles that can be powered by aluminum. Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies recently showed how hydrogen can power small, unmanned aerial vehicles. Daimler Chrysler says it will soon come out with a new prototype hydrogen can and that hydrogen cars will be on the road in the 2012 to 2015 time frame.

Still, many doubt that hydrogen will ever play a role in the U.S. energy infrastructure. At the Clean Energy Venture Summit, James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA and currently an alternative energy advocate, received a standing ovation when he said hydrogen research was a distraction and largely a waste of time. Instead, he, among others, favor alternative transportation concepts like plug-in hybrids or clean diesel.

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46 comments

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Processing of the aluminum?
Assuming that this technique can be put into a practical system, what is the energy expense involved with processing the waste aluminum oxide back to elemental aluminum? That is a very energy intensive process that is typically carried out with electricity. So, once again, the question comes down to how clean is the source of electricity being used?
Probably one of the only ways that hydrogen will ever become an environmentally-friendly fuel would be if a non-polluting source of electricity is used - either to directly produce hydrogen from water, or for recycling the reducing agent (such as the aluminum in this system).
Posted by PCsRfun (64 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No Such Thing
There is no such thing as a "non-polluting source of electricity"

Nuclear, Zero co2 emissions, is even hated by environMentals... not that co2 matters anyway, what with Water vapor being the number 1 greenhouse gas (by a long shot).. so why do you want to put h20 into the atmosphere?
Posted by zeeboid (92 comments )
Link Flag
>>>"So, once again,...
... the question comes down to how clean is the source of electricity being used?"<<< Answer: HYDRO-POWER!
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Link Flag
Efficiency
If the process involves significant inefficiencies, as is certainly true
with electrolyzing water itself, then it might not be worth doing.
However, barring that, the energy involved in processing the
aluminum oxide back into aluminum might be about equal to that
required to separate the hydrogen from water and incorporate it
into the aluminum, which you would get back when oxidizing the
hydrogen in the power production part of the process. Anybody
know?
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Link Flag
James Woolsey doesn't understand....
James Woolsey doesn't understand that the point of going with alternative fuels is to keep from polluting. Biofuels can produce worse pollution than gasoline does now, and electric cars still have to get electricity from some type of fuel source. Anyone who thinks ethanol is the solution needs to know that that is too a biofuel. The best solution for the planet and humanity is to develop hydrogen as the primary fuel source.
Posted by patkohler (34 comments )
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Not the only point
Reducing pollutants is an important motivation for alternative energy.

The other motivation is equally important: reducing our dependence on oil. oil is an extremely finite resource. Hydrogen, while not infinite, approaches what could be reasonably considered to be an unlimited supply.

If this could become reality, and it does not nothing to reduce pollutants, we are still considerably better off then we are now.

What do you think is going to happen if the oil runs out and there is not a viable, sustainable alternative?
Posted by MSSlayer (1074 comments )
Link Flag
The Hydrogen Problem
Re Hydrogen, the primary problem is the same as ethanol....input energy to generate useful fuel is greater than output energy.
We are a solution away from cheap electricity. Question: If electricity were very cheap and abundant, would that remove the primary argument against Hydrogen? If so, potential solution ...use existing technologies and mass production to manufacture many wave power generators to convert mechanical to electrical energy. The oceans are an endless source of mechanical energy. Thoughts?
Posted by mouthpiece2 (2 comments )
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Producing Hydrogen
An abundance of cheaply available electricity would indeed be a solution to a lot of problems since many issues with contemporary technology are a direct result of using less efficient fuels due to an economic advantage. Using wave power generators might play a part in a possible solution to this problem. Unless however one wants to build many thousand wave power plants near the shores all over the world I doubt that they alone would be able to produce sufficient amounts of usable energy. I suggest to use a combination of other renewable enrgy sources as well such as solar and wind power in suitable regions and maybe geothermal energy where possible. One could than use the electricity directly or use it to produce hydrogen out of water. The technology for this exists and is steadily improving; what remains is the challenge to establish an economy of scale that makes these alternatives more competitive and ultimately the only feasible choice.
Posted by Netrys (2 comments )
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Microbe
So, give us more about the hydrogen-producing microorganism.
Microbe/water filled solar collectors giving off hydrogen sounds
like a simpler, perhaps more efficient process than the others here.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
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Microbe
Water does not have any nutritional value so what would the microbes consume? If the microbe escaped into the environment, would it happily turn all water into gas?
Posted by mouthpiece2 (2 comments )
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I was thinking about the old dream of filling the tank with water
I was thinking about the old dream of filling the tank with water and realized that while it may sound like this is a vehicle where that could be true it would be better for the exhaust to just dump the water back into the tank and recycle it.

Just think about those lovely northern winters (sorry I'm late boss, I had to defrost the fuel tank) which means a source of heat is going to be needed or there will have to be an antifreeze added that won't react with the metal.

It's a lovely sounding idea but there are also a lot of possible problems.
Posted by extinctone (214 comments )
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It happened almost 90 years ago
There was a story of man who did a demonstration in the early 1900's. It was reported that he filled the tank of a car with water and then started the engine. He ran the car until it ran out of fuel. He then disappeared. It was never done again. Could this technology be what he used.

RFB
Posted by rfbruno (1 comment )
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It happens all the time...
All you have to do is add acetone to the water. The problem is the acetone/water fuel burns up the engine. People have used this trick for many years trying to get money from people for the “secret”. Now with the Internet, it gets harder to use because the technique gets spread around faster. Now they are trying other ways of getting money from people.
Posted by willdryden (271 comments )
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Patent will be bought by an oil company...
AND BURIED!
Posted by batavier (66 comments )
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or stolen by...
the government - like Tesla's papers were upon his death.
Posted by Jim Hubbard (326 comments )
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Patent will be bought by an oil company...
AND BURIED!
Posted by batavier (66 comments )
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Hydrogen cars/Black ice
Great idea Hydrogen cars with just water H2O out the tail pipe.
One little problem, With thousands of hydrogen cars in rush/stop
hour traffic and H2O out of the tail pipe, When the ambiant
temperature is below 32F, BLACK ICE with car crashes everywhere!
Am I correct any northern roads will be covered in black ice?
Posted by Vonmaxx (38 comments )
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Not much difference
My chemistry is a bit rusty, but since hydrocarbons have
approximately two hydrogen atoms for each carbon atom,
oxidizing them gives you approximately equal parts CO2 and
H2O, although by mass it would be more like 70/30 CO2 to
H2O. So, if emitted in gaseous form, the same energy
production would most likely give you more H2O for pure H2
combustion. However, in a fuel cell I believe the reaction product
is liquid water so it could be stored in a tank. Plus, I think the
conversion efficiency is a lot higher than for combustion so not
as much would be produced.

Anybody know more about this?
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Link Flag
Re: Hydrogen cars/Black ice
I think when gasoline burns, it also produces water...but other things as well. I'm not sure if it produces more or less water.
Posted by Spimby (61 comments )
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Hydrogen cars/Black ice
you do not need a tail pipe. just store the water and drain later.
Posted by pmm6 (11 comments )
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What's wrong with people!?
We keep talking about magic batteries for electric cars, fuel cells, exotic fuels and magic beans (aluminum pellets) that can make our car pollution woes dissappear. WHY?

Why not use the things we have at hand to solve this problem?

For example, an electric car is a great idea - but the batteries are heavy, need specail rechargers that just aren't available everywhere and are slow to recharge. So, ditch the damned battery!

Every major road has power lines nearby. Why not place the equivilent of metal "strips" on the road and let electric cars suck up the electricity right off the road? Like subway cars do now.

You'd have to cover them for safety somehow - or simply beam the electricity from the road surface to the cars. These solutions exist now, have been one for years in subway cars and are relatively inexpensive to develop on a large scale.

The cars would still need batteries for driving where the road had no built in power, but those batteries coudl be smaller and would be replenished simply by driving on a powered road.

Electric meters in the vehicles (or a general tax) could pay for the power used by the vehicles and for grid maintenance.

Stop dreaming about electric vehicles and let's get to work!
Posted by Jim Hubbard (326 comments )
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Not likely
Everytime some new fuel comes along, they always claim that it will equal X dollar a gallon gasoline. Remember when ethanol was going to save us, and cost $1 a gallon? Now we know ethanol can't make a dent in demand and costs as much as $3 gasoline, even with federal subsidies. And making it drives up the cost of most of our food.
And fuel cells are out of the question. And where is this aluminum going to come from and what happens to the residue? And when will fuel cells cost less than $1 million dollars? And why not use electricity instead, at between 25 and 50 cents a gallon? This discovery means less than nothing.
Posted by theBike45 (90 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Well,
The jury's still out on what might be best, with so much under
development. In the scheme outlined in this article, aluminum
would be oxidized in the liberation of hydrogen from water, and
would in turn be liberated from the oxygen electrically the same
way aluminum is produced from aluminum oxide ore now. The
gallium just serves to keep the aluminum in a liquid state so all of
it can be easily explosed to oxidation. The only questions would be
ones of efficiency and of course cost. The the necessry parts of the
process already work.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Link Flag
Done already
People call cars, travelling on electricity, carried by metal strips subways. There are also electric trains, trams and other electric vehicles.
Posted by quasarstrider (439 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Tracks and roads
Only using electricity from a line for a untracked vehicle is much harder and an unapplied concept. It could be quite useful if developed properly. But wide spread use isn't viable, I think, because of the drain it would place on power grids, some of which are at or near the breaking point. And it'd be shifting the energy problem to power plants where they depend on fossil fuels also, abeit different ones.
Posted by Stufiano (88 comments )
Link Flag
burning aluminum: easy, not cheap. 95% wasted energy.
it takes 20 times as much energy to make aluminum as the energy that can be extracted by converting it BACK into oxides.

many homemade explosives are based on powdered aluminum, you can get "free" heat by adding lye to aluminum chips (careful it melts skin)

free electricity: aluminum pole on ordinary chemical battery.

none of this is "FREE" you paid for the aluminum when you bought 3 cents worth of sugar water (pluse some phosphoric acid to etch your teeth and give tooth decay a headstart) for a dollar.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Reply Link Flag
yeah, with a hidden tank of gas
Probably a prank where he had people pay to see it. Then of course never to be seen again becuase he blew town knowing if they investigated how he did it they might beat him to a pulp. Of course I've heard other stories like this, the guy with the black box the size of an air conditioner that powered his house. Definately if there was cheap and easy energy to be had the big oil and utility companies would have an incentive to squelch it. I'm sure they continue every day. They probably don't want you to know about this either. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.theaircar.com/models.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.theaircar.com/models.html</a>
Posted by stlwest (72 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why squelch it?
Why the hell would an oil or utility company even CONSIDER squelching such an idea if it existed? Do you have any idea how much money they would make from cheap and easy energy?!?!

Oil is EXPENSIVE for the oil companies to get and people complain every time the price goes up. If they could get the same energy for 1/4 of the cost and sell it for 25% less than other forms of energy they would make a killing!

Face it, the existing oil and energy companies are the ONLY ones well positioned to take advantage of any new forms of energy. That is why they are the ones doing BY FAR the most research and development in REAL and practical sources of energy, unlike those people designing "Air cars" which only seem to get good gas mileage because it uses a 25hp engines. A car with a 25hp gasoline engine and a super-lightweight chassis that won't pass any safety standards can easily get well over 100mpg.
Posted by Hoser McMoose (182 comments )
Link Flag
1957 Chemalloy
In 1957 a Dr. Freedman patented a metal alloy called chemalloy, which spontaneously breaks water into hydrogen and oxygen with no outside electrical input. Sound familiar? This is a promising concept, however it causes a chemical reaction which changes the metal alloy. This is the same problem they have today. There is only one way to produce hydrogen efficiently and I am currently still working on it.
Posted by bssouth17 (1 comment )
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James Woolsey is or was a member of PNAC, an EXTREME right wing nest of rodents. that he is involved in alternative fuels should be investigated since he once supported the petroleum industry, and has a penchant for lying. something sinister lies in this.
Posted by mescalero205 (1 comment )
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It says that oxygen in water would react to aluminum, producing aluminum oxide and would free up hydrogen. I don't know about you guys, but I think a solid and non-radioactive waste would be far better than liquid, gaseous and radioactive waste -it would be very easy to contain the waste since it's solid and non-radioactive, and because oxygen would react to aluminum, no loose oxygen would react to O3 in the o-zone layer- why don't we give this technology a chance?... It's close to "environmental-friendly energy" anyway. -I'm not sure about what gallium's role is in the reaction though but I hope it would produce solid gallium based bi-product because gallium is toxic there would be big problems if it would be in liquid or gaseous form.
Posted by AKUITO (1 comment )
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