Sunday, August 3, 2008

Landmark Chemistry Breakthrough Might Yield Results in 50 Years

He does look professorial, doesn't he?

College professors are smart. Ones that do research are very smart. Ones at MIT that do research are likely to be brilliant. A chemist at MIT seems to be beyond brilliant. His name is Daniel Nocera, and he is the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing a revolutionary process in the July 31 issue of Science.

The screen cap above is from MIT's website discussing the paper. In a nutshell, the story states that instead of using large batteries to hold energy captured from the sun, we can now use the energy to break water into its components: Hydrogen and Oxygen. We can then use the hydrogen in our home fuel cell units. Read the story. We'll be hear when you're done.

Firstly, if this holds up it is nothing short of brilliant science. If, that is, it holds up. Recall the "cold fusion" fiasco circa 1989. There's nothing like the lure of cheap energy to drive a story.

Secondly, the catalysts are characterized as cheap. Cobalt metal is fairly cheap at less than $40.00 per pound... and the prime suppliers are two Canadian mines. The other catalyst is platinum... at roughly $1,600 per ounce, a pound of the stuff is over $25,000. In a word: Yikes. And if memory serves, the primary suppliers of platinum are not as friendly as they could be...

Thirdly, this whole exercise is executed in order to get the hydrogen out of the water for use in the family, household fuel cell. What, you don't have one in the basement, between the furnace and that pile of laundry you've been meaning to get to? Well, I don't have one either. (I do, however, have many stacks, piles, bags and unsorted baskets of laundry awaiting my attention...) Some manufacturers are producing home fuel cell systems that extract hydrogen from liquid propane gas or natural gas. These home fuel cells are just beyond the testing stage. Panasonic has a new plant that manufactures a NG co-generation system. They produce a whopping three units a day. Stop the presses.

Good lord, there is nothing I'd like more than cheap electricity that doesn't turn the sky yellow. I'm not a global warming kool-aid drinker by any means, but what's there not to like about fuel cells and clean solar photo-voltaic cells? Nothing, except the sky-high costs of fuel cells and the horrendous strain on the environment that manufacturing solar panels causes.

Sure, I'd like to recharge my flying electric car in my own driveway... But it's not going to happen for a long, long time. Certainly not in the 10 years envisioned in the article.

Clearly, this research should receive funding to try to develop a deployable system. I wonder if there is a venture capitalist interested in making an investment?

I know that energy costs are through the roof. But to convert a house to this sort of energy system will be a huge investment. The payback in savings will have to be measured in years, not generations. I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see this becoming a big thing within 10 years.


Eric said...

"I wonder if there is a venture capitalist interested in making an investment?"

Not with fuel prices depressing the economy...not enough investment dollars lying around these days. See, that's what the Dems don't get. They want this technology, but as long as they keep the price of oil up, investment dollars will be hard to come by.

Anonymous said...

What about panel systems with fuel cell units built right into them?

Mark said...

What about panel systems with fuel cell units built right into them?

I'm not sure what you are getting at..

So you have a PV panel providing juice to a fuel cell... to do what? Cogeneration based on LPG or natural gas? Or electrolysis to extract the hydrogen from water?

Anonymous said...

The fuel cell idea is based on PC greenie thought. The reality is that if you provide chemical engineers thermally cheap hydrogen (high EROEI) the sky is the limit on what can be done.

This is important.

Charles said...

Actually, the big story here isn't energy, it's the fact that they found a cheap replacement for platinum as a catalyst.

Platinum is used all over industry because of it's amazing catalyst properties. But it is only mined in very troubled regions of the planet. If we can find cheap readily available replacements for it we are freed from very tenuous supply situation for an essential industrial commodity. And it if is an even better catalyst than platinum it make your head swim with the possibilities.

For one thing the price of a car drops several thousand dollars immediately because catalytic converters are full of platinum.