Posted on Mar 17, 2008 - 06:52 PM
By: Adam Beazley
There is a lot of buzz lately about a hydrogen economy. I have always been a bit of a skeptic about this hydrogen economy, because although hydrogen is a clean burning energy carrier, it is currently produced in a pretty dirty way. Over 85% of the world’s hydrogen is produced by using natural gas in a process called steam reformation. Unfortunately this process is not very green, in fact, for each pound of hydrogen this process makes, it produces 4 pounds of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). So, the idea of switching an entire economy from one dirty energy carrier (oil) to a little less dirty energy carrier (hydrogen) does not make too much sense to me.
Now the idea of the hydrogen economy is to produce all hydrogen using renewable energy sources, which in theory sounds great. However, typical electrolysis is an expensive, slow, and somewhat inefficient process and this is precisely why steam reformation is the process of choice for producing hydrogen. Simply put, it is cheaper and faster than electrolysis, but in no way is it greener or cleaner.
Until now the electrodes used in the electrolysis process were made of precious metal catalyst materials making them too expensive to compete with steam reformation. A company called Quantum Sphere, Inc. has found a way around this little problem by using an alkaline electrolysis process, which eliminates the need for precious metal catalysts. In alkaline electrolysis, nickel is the ideal catalyst because it can easily be produced at the nano scale and it is far less costly than platinum. The company has also invented a technique, using nano technology, to increase the catalytic surface area of each electrode, giving them 2,000 times more surface area than its predecessors.
QSI has demonstrated that by using a blend of their nickel and iron catalyst materials, they can achieved electrolysis efficiencies exceeding 85%, while achieving production increases of ten-fold over all other previously published data. Keep in mind that electrolysis is a pollution free, non CO2 emitting process. At $1.14 to $4.09 per pound of hydrogen, this drastic improvement in electrolysis efficiency now makes hydrogen an economically and commercially viable replacement for our current fossil fuel economy. With efficiencies like these, we may just see compact electrolysis units inside future automobiles, producing on-demand hydrogen to power on board fuel cells.
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