July 11, 2005 9:00 PM PDT

Start-up zeros in on hydrogen fuel cells

Michael Lefenfeld and James Dye of Signa Chemistry wanted to make rooms smell better. Instead, they stumbled on a way that could make hydrogen fuel cells a practical reality.

New York City-based Signa says it has come up with a new--and fairly efficient--way to produce hydrogen, one of the vexing problems for boosters of the hydrogen economy.

Conceivably, the company's technology could be incorporated into fuel cells that could generate enough electricity to run a cell phone for a week, or a car in emergency situations. The company's techniques could also reduce cost and complexity for pharmaceutical manufacturers and petroleum refiners.

The key is sodium, the ornery alkali metal that bursts into sparks when dunked in water. Hydrogen-making process The sodium/water reaction can generate hydrogen (along with other byproducts). But, because of the sparks and heat, industrial companies shy away from it.

Signa has devised a way to mix sodium with silica gel or crystalline silicon to create a powder that essentially strips electrons from the sodium molecules in advance and stores them. When water is introduced, the chemical reaction proceeds calmly. (The harvested hydrogen molecules in turn undergo a second reaction: Electrons are stripped from the molecules and get channeled into electrical power.)

Just as important, the powder generates hydrogen efficiently. More than 9 percent of a kilogram of the powder gets converted to hydrogen and little energy is lost through heat.

"You toss it into water and it just bubbles," said Lefenfeld in an interview. "It frees up the electron to make it readily available for the reaction. A lot of that heat (in a normal sodium-water reaction) comes from the stripping away of that electron."

Although it's a small company--it only has three full-time employees--Signa has begun to get its name around. It has delivered powders to chemical and drug manufacturers and is working with a fuel cell manufacturer to develop prototypes. It will announce a deal with a major chemical distributor soon. While the company's offices are in New York, a contract manufacturer in Buffalo, N.Y., is producing the materials--about 10 kilograms a day.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, or the next failed promise, depending on who you ask. Panasonic has started to conduct trials with hydrogen home-heating systems in Japan and Honda has obtained certification for a hydrogen car there.

"That side of the periodic table people tend to ignore."
--Michael Lefenfeld,
Signa Chemistry
Others, however, note that the expense and energy involved in making and storing the gas can outweigh the benefits. The most common method now involves electrolyzing pure water. Other methods, like the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, one of the leading hydrogen vehicles, have yet to be perfected. But alternative vehicles for burning hydrogen, namely the solid oxide fuel cell, show promise.

"I have been and I'm still enormously skeptical about most of the solutions for alternatives. People say when hydrogen burns, it produces only water. Did you know that hydrogen is a greenhouse gas? Nobody thinks about it, right?" Arno Penzias, a partner at New Enterprise Associates, said in a recent interview. "But then the bigger problem is, how do you make the hydrogen?"

To gain a foothold in the market, Signa is taking the path of least resistance. It will first target a product--a powder that consists of sodium and crystalline silicon--at industrial chemical manufacturers who consume large quantities of materials, are intimately familiar with industrial chemical processes, and understand the promise (and pitfalls) of sodium.

"Pharmaceutical companies will take several steps to get around using alkali metals. Petrochemical manufacturers are the same," Lefenfeld said.

Fuel cells will follow later. Mostly, the company will partner with fuel cell makers to devise cells for smaller devices, such as phones or MP3 players. Currently, several companies have developed prototypes of methanol fuel cells and fuel cells that generate electricity by combining hydrogen with solid oxides.

Lefenfeld, however, says hydrogen will work better. Methanol is flammable, and oxide fuel cells require a catalyst, which invariably reduces the efficiency of a reaction. Hydrogen fuel cells can also deliver larger amounts of energy, say some. One company, Millennium Cell, is working on a prototype hydrogen fuel cell that could ship to notebook makers by 2007.

Methanol fuel cell advocates, on the other hand, have asserted that their products are safe and have been tested for several years now.

Hydrogen fuel cells produced with the company's powers could also run a car, although not particularly economically in the foreseeable future.

"I can see this being used when you run out of gas, for that emergency 50-mile drive," he said. "The material is not expensive, but it is not as cheap as gasoline."

The powder for fuel cells will consist of sodium mixed with a silica gel. While this mixture produces less overall hydrogen than the sodium/crystal silicon mix, the potential for impurities is reduced.

If it's so efficient, and the reaction uses well-known and understood materials, why did no one come up with this years ago? Lefenfeld, who is working on a PhD in chemistry at Columbia, admits that luck, and a general reluctance to work with these materials, helped.

"That side of the periodic table people tend to ignore," he said.

The two were trying to come up with an aerosol substitute for spraying things like fragrances, which are a combination of oils and water. "When you get fragrant oils on water, the difficultly is getting the fragrant oils off the water," he said. Alkali metals can do the trick, but the violent release of energy is a problem.

The first idea was to mix sodium with zeolites, a class of crystalline solids. Unfortunately, Zeolites are expensive. The group then came up with the idea of using porous silicon gels, which have similar attributes but are cheaper. The amount of hydrogen generated from the reaction prompted the group to start to examine fuel cells and industrial applications.

28 comments

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9 Percent is efficient?
I would have liked a bit more information about this.
Posted by bfioca (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Company URL
Why was the Signa company url not given? I found it online at www.signachem.com.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Updated with URL
Sorry about that. The URL should have been included. We've added it to the second paragraph of the story. Thanks for pointing this out.

Jennifer Guevin
Associate Editor
CNET News.com
Posted by jenguevin (89 comments )
Link Flag
getting the sodium
It seems to me that extracting the sodium from NaCl would take far more energy than its worth. These fuel cells would probably be fairly expensive. What about the caustic sodium hydroxide byproduct?

I have about a kilo of pure sodium in my closet. It's fun stuff, but expensive.
Posted by (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Same Old Story...
It's the same old story: "We're running out of petroleum, what
will we do?"

"Hey, we'll burn HYDROGEN!!!"

"Where will we get the hydrogen?"

"Hey, we'll use SODIUM!!!"

"Uhm, where will we get the sodium?"

Unless it comes from the sun (or to a vastly lesser extent, the
tides or heat from the earth's core), it isn't an energy source; it's
an energy transition. And each energy transition itself consumes
energy.

Show me a way to get sodium from solar energy and I'll drop a
bit of skepticism.
Posted by Bytesmiths (104 comments )
Link Flag
Cost of sodium
According to the Wikipedia, the cost of sodium is about $0.15
-0.20 per pound.

Gasoline is currently $2.33/gal average in the US. At 6.1lbs/gal,
that makes it about $0.38/lb.

So sodium is actually cheaper by weight than gasoline (and
relatively speaking, not that expensive).

Of course the REAL question is whether a pound of sodium (or
rather, the hydrogen it can produce) has more combustion
energy than a pound of gasoline.

I won't expand all the math because no one probably cares, but I
was curious -- so I figured it out (have to put my chem degree
to some use), and the end result is that a pound of sodium can
produce enough hydrogen to equal the energy in approximately
1/100 of a gallon of gasoline.

Taking the cost differential into account, that still means that to
generate an equivalent amount of energy, sodium is still 50
times more expensive than gasoline.
Posted by (3 comments )
Link Flag
Hydrogen as a greenhouse gas?
The story quotes Arno Penzias as saying hydrogen is a greenhouse gas. I can only assume he was misquoted, and really meant that all the processes we know of today to extract pure hydrogen produce greenhouse gases.
Posted by Perturbance (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Amusing someone else picked this up
I was thinking the same thing when I read the article.

There is no way that hydrogen itself is a greenhouse gas
because it either will react to form something else or -- left in
its molecular form -- is so light that it will simply float out of
Earth's atmosphere into space.

I think you are right about the misquote. The current most-
widely-used way of manufacturing hydrogen is via natural gas
with CO2 as a byproduct, which _is_ of course a greenhouse gas.
Posted by (3 comments )
Link Flag
Greenhouse gas? Probably
Mr. Penzias is most probably right.

Hydrogen is a highly reactive gas and could easily combine with ozone to further contribute to the depletion of this prptective layer.

In this sense it might be harmful to the atmosphere.

But, could it directly contribute to global warming? I do not know the answer.
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
Hydrogen not greenhouse gas
Since hydrogen is a diatomic gas, it has no dipole moment. It therefore does not absorb in the infrared spectrum and does not qualify as a greenhouse gas.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Withour a Real breakthrough, Hydrogen is a LOSER
It is about energy. Using Hydrogen would destroy our country and take it back to the 1800's like Rowe wants with the few rich being served by the controlled mass of poor.

The challenges are to compress and contain hydrogen and generate hydrogen, as cost effectively as biodiesel as well as get fuel cells with their motors as cost effective as diesel engines.

For some more on the challenges see: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://RecoveryByDiscovery.com/hydrogen.htm" target="_newWindow">http://RecoveryByDiscovery.com/hydrogen.htm</a>

Very Respectfully,

Michael
Posted by mikemikef (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And
And it also doesnt solve the underlying problem of energy production.

Hydrogen is touted as a way to create energy but it does nothing of the sort.

Hydrogen is like a rechargable battery.

You put a significant amount of energy into creating hydrogen, you get less energy back when you use it to create electricity or heat.

Its a fundamental law of thermodynamics.. you can make hydrogen more efficient but you will still always use more electricity to produce hydrogen than you get back from it.

And how will produce the energy needed to create hydrogen? Fossil fuels. Instead of burning them in our cars, we will need to burn that same amount or more of them in power plants to create the energy needed to make hydrogen.

You can convert energy to matter, matter to energy and both to different forms of their state but neither can be created or destroyed.

Now if someone could find a way to produce energy from nitrogen we would be in business. Over 78% of our atmosphere is pure nitrogen.
Posted by Fray9 (547 comments )
Link Flag
Hydrogen is an energy storage medium
Well, that is fine. What we *really* wanted was an electric battery which was good enough for a car and an electric grid which was up to it. Since we do not have those, people have been mucking around with fuel cells.

This is all a quest for a way to store energy for mobile applications which can easily be converted into electricity, so you can use nice silent, fast, high torque electric engines and regenerative braking. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius already have these, but instead of fuel cells they use a gasoline engine and a generator to produce the electricity IIRC.

Regarding Nitrogen, there is a process to make that into propellant already, if you will. The Haber-Bosch process converts nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia which is used to make fertilizer and explosives. Explosives can be used as propellant, as you can see during the 4th of July, but that process is energy intensive as well.
Posted by quasarstrider (439 comments )
Reply Link Flag
OR....
ya know, could go the much easier cheaper way..
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.hempcar.org/" target="_newWindow">http://www.hempcar.org/</a>
hemp oil. extremely easy to grow (like a weed) can grow to full maturity in 6 weeks
completely harmless to the environment (unlike the other methods of fuel this one actualy helps the environment while it is being grown,
at least make it an option for people to switch to and see where it goes..
i get criticized for suggesting this from some people, as if it is a totally illogical solution.... plants? what good are plants to humans... pft...

-dan
*we all hold hands as we dance around the giant smog cloud that surrounds us giving us a warm justification for how ****** we are...*
Posted by (3 comments )
Link Flag
RE Hydrogen Fuel Cells
I see a new way to produce Hydrogen from a Sodium
with a biasing of Silica to extract the excess Electrons from the conversion process which reduces or eleminates free electrons which is a form of spark arrestor. This is a interesting puzzle for sure. The problem I have with many of these process
is the fact that most are just a form of repackaged energy. Such as Uranium to provide enery which if you calculate the energy used to process the raw materials is about the same in consumption as the output. Yes Hydrogen is much cleaner in the burn process during the recombining with O2 but at what expense in energy from a power station to create the base materials for this reaction to take place in the first place. This involves electricity to produce the base Silicons
and sodium which are used in the process of which should be calculated into the math before anyone can claim effecient use. If you add the energy used to create the raw forms of base materials
along with the building and equipment to operate
etc.etc. I think you will see that a repackaging process is really the result. Why not use solar
in place to provide the energy for raw material production then we have something that is sustainable without damage to our globe. Or use solar to convert water to Hydrogen directly via
electricity B+ and bypass the reprocessing of raw materials all together. The problem is everyone
wants it today and is not willing to wait for the supply in the proper fashion. Instead of taking several days to produce the fuel you require, everyone wants it now or yesterday and that is the problem. For example if many solar devices are set up about the globe to produce energy it does take longer but the results a perfect with no waste or burning of other fuels in the process. Kinda like taking a ship accross the Ocean or a plane. Because we want to be there before we left so to speak we require large fuel consumption where if we were satisfied to take a few days the energy consumption would be practically nill.
We have to learn to be conservative with time
which is the answer to reducing fuel use around the planet.
Thanks Vern Jackson
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Another Stock Rip-off
This is an "energy sink" , cannot possibly work. Ripoff scheme, watch out.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Financial Scam
I agree. This is nothing but a way to transport and store Hydrogen. It doesn't look like a very good one! There are all sorts of phony connections made in the article.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Hypower Fuel already has a working Hydrogen generator
Hypower Fuel already has a working Hydrogen generator, they are working on a webcast to showcase this technology. You can read the article at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/070322/20070322005196.html?.v=1" target="_newWindow">http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/070322/20070322005196.html?.v=1</a> or go to there website at
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.hypowerfuel.com/home.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.hypowerfuel.com/home.html</a>
Posted by apptec (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
heat from sodium
I have been away from science for many year, but do remember the heat sodium produces. How many BTU's does a kilo of sodium produce? My email address is jkosakowsky@tmail.com Thank you for taking the time for me.
Posted by johnkosakowsky (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I was wondering the same thing. Would there be a net benefit from using sodium and water as input, capturing the heat from the reaction and hydrogen combustion, and using the heat to create steam for a turbine? I'm thinking probably not or someone would've already done this.
Posted by woody2009 (1 comment )
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