Energy Politics

by Russ Roberts on July 20, 2004

in Energy, Politics, Technology

Researchers at Alfred University are exploring a fascinating and weird way to get us to the hydrogen economy. Researchers there, according to this MSNBC article, have found a way to get hydrogen into tiny glass spheres, each smaller than a grain of salt. The virtue of this system is that it solves a safety problem:

The miniature glass spheres, known as microspheres, “are a much safer method for transporting hydrogen,” says Jim Shelby, project leader and professor of ceramic engineering at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y.

“Each tiny microsphere acts as its own pressure vessel. In an accident, they would not break and release a large quantity of hydrogen, as would the rupture of a big tank of gas,” he adds. Instead, the spheres would just spill onto the ground, some possibly breaking into beads that would release minute amounts of hydrogen.

Now for the poetry and romance:

Shelby envisions a day when drivers fill up cars with microspheres the way they pump gasoline. “The refueling process would be in two steps. First, a vacuum would suck the used spheres out and send them to a tank for refilling. New, filled spheres would then be pumped in from a different tank,” he says. “The consumer would not see much difference from today’s system.”

Made of sand, the microspheres are very light, inexpensive, easily recycled “and can be repeatedly filled and refilled without degradation,” he adds.

Sounds great. But there’s a small problem:

Technical hurdles with the project include finding a reliable way to release the hydrogen on demand. And that’s where the Alfred University researchers came up with a breakthrough: using light to trigger that reaction.

By treating the spheres with various chemicals, the researchers use light to release the hydrogen in a second or two. They can also adjust the light’s intensity to control the rate of flow.

“So starting the car would turn on the light at a level to begin production of electricity by a hydrogen fuel cell,” says Shelby. “Acceleration would be done by just increasing the intensity of the light to provide more hydrogen to the fuel cell.”

Perfecting that technique is where much of the research will focus and Shelby acknowledges that it will be “tricky.”

Yes it will be. But it’s still pretty cool. And who knows? Maybe this really is a glimpse of the future rather than an episode of the Jetsons.

There is one more issue. Politics:

The researchers realize they are small players in the hydrogen storage field — in fact their grant is a fraction of the $150 million doled out by the Energy Department for hydrogen storage research.

They also feel that their greatest challenge might be in overcoming what they see as institutional bias.

“In many ways, the key obstacles are not in the technology but in the politics of hydrogen,” says Shelby. The large national labs are exploring more conventional storage devices, he notes, and “they have tens of millions of dollars of support each year.”

“Since large research groups have been working in those areas for many years, they have established themselves as the ‘viable’ technologies,” he adds. And that makes it hard for other ideas, like the spheres, “to get the attention of the vehicle manufacturers and funding agencies.”

Ah those funding agencies. I sure wish investors with their own money on their line were making these decisions rather than a “funding agency” with no accountability for making a mistake with my taxes:

The research team is getting started thanks to a $2 million Energy Department grant that’s part of President Bush’s FreedomCar program — a $1.2 billion initiative to develop cars that run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

I suppose I should be happy that it’s “only” 1.2 billion.

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