This “Nanocatalyst” Breakthrough Will Change the Way We Drive Cars Forever
Occasionally, something crosses my desk that brings me back to my very early years, the ones in which theoretical physics was just about the only thing I thought about (aside from playing baseball).
I had a professor then that would comment on how important pure science was, even though more research money flowed into applied matters.
He used to say: “Pure science can teach us about the origins of the universe. But unless you can turn that into developing a quicker-drying paint, there is unlikely to be much market interest in it.”
However, over my years in the energy sector, I’ve seen that the two worlds sometimes come very close together.
And they’re about to do just that again. Because researchers have come up with a revolutionary – and cheap – new way to fuel cars.
Hydrogen as Car Fuel Has Been Too Costly
One of the hallmarks to energy development and application has always been the entrepreneurial factor. New approaches have always held the prospect of a breakthrough that would revolutionize how we live our lives.
Another matter I have been particularly vocal on has been the advancing energy balance. Here, the crucial issue has been the ability to use existing and expanding energy sources in an interchangeable matrix to improve both availability and efficiency.
In short, this emerging new energy balance consists of the ability to use separate energy sources in a seamless network to replace, augment, and serve as backup for each other. While we have gone far in some respects – combining traditional and renewable energy sources in the generation of electricity, for example – transport has been the stumbling block.
We seem to remain constricted to either select cars run entirely by electricity, oil products, or some hybrid combination of both. Occasionally, the potential for hydrogen as a viable fuel has been advanced.
Yet cost factors, especially in the transport and delivery of the hydrogen fuel itself, have suggested it’s not efficient enough to warrant serious consideration.
Here is where a possible bridge between pure and applied science may be intervening. Word coming from the UK of precisely the kind of interaction among energy types I’ve been talking about may prompt a reconsideration of hydrogen’s role…
This New Breakthrough Could Make Hydrogen Fuel Feasible
A report has been making the rounds over the past few days, involving the advancing interactive use of three new energy sources. You can read the full version on Clean Technica, by clicking here. But here’s the gist.
The report shows a new, energy-efficient process for extracting hydrogen fuel from biomass. But before we get to that, some background is necessary.
The central appeal of using hydrogen as car fuel is that burning hydrogen produces only two byproducts: water and heat. Both could potentially be used in the car, to heat and humidify the passenger compartment, if necessary.
But hydrogen as car fuel has yet to take off, because pure hydrogen is very difficult to extract. The same thing that makes hydrogen such a potent fuel – its extremely high tendency to react with anything around it – also makes it impossible to find pure hydrogen in nature.
It’s always bound up in something else.
In America, for example, most commercial hydrogen is extracted from natural gas. And breaking up that gas to extract pure hydrogen from it can take more energy than you can get from then burning the hydrogen in a car…
Meaning that just using that natural gas as car fuel makes a lot more sense.
Of course, using natural gas as a source of hydrogen also raises some environmental difficulties that the use of hydrogen was supposed to solve in the first place.
That’s where this new breakthrough comes in…
“Nanocatalysts” and Sunlight Create Cheap Hydrogen
A huge and untapped source of hydrogen is biomass waste. These are organic leftovers such as food waste, cut grass, timber, leaves, and unwanted agricultural residue.
Now, we’ve known for some time how to convert biomass into hydrogen. That part is easy.
But doing so requires extremely high temperatures, making the process very inefficient… or so we thought.
As the Clean Technica report points out, researchers from Cambridge have developed a technique that extracts pure hydrogen gas from biomass using only alkaline water, sunlight, and special “nanocatalysts.”
Crucially, the whole process can take place at room temperature and normal pressure, potentially making it an energy-efficient way of creating car fuel.
But, right now, this is still more in the realm of pure science. What we need is somebody with a thick applied science checkbook to move this very interesting development to the next stage – and usher in the new energy balance in the transportation sector.
You’ll get the latest on this new hydrogen technology as it develops, right here in Oil & Energy Investor.