Hydrogen-generating technology might power boats, store energy from wind, solar sources

Oct 25, 2010 By Emil Venere
Purdue doctoral student Go Choi watches hydrogen being generated in a new process to extract the gas from seawater. The hydrogen could then be used to run engines in boats and ships, representing a potential replacement for gasoline and diesel fuel in marine applications. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

Researchers have developed a method that uses aluminum and a liquid alloy to extract hydrogen from seawater to run engines in boats and ships, representing a potential replacement for gasoline and diesel fuel in marine applications.

The technique had previously worked only for freshwater, but a new formulation also enables the method to generate from seawater, said Jerry Woodall, a Purdue University distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Hydrogen generated by the technology could be fed directly to an .

"This is important because it might have many marine applications, including cruise ships and tankers," said Woodall, who is working with doctoral student Go Choi.

The method makes it unnecessary to store or transport hydrogen - two major challenges in using hydrogen for ships and vehicles, Woodall said.

"We generate the hydrogen on demand, as you need it," Woodall said. "It also eliminates the need to store fresh water when used for marine applications."

Because waste produced in the process could be recycled using and , the technology also represents a new way of storing energy from solar and , he said.

"Being unable to store energy from wind and solar has been a major limitation for those technologies because they don't work very well when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing," he said. "But if we converted energy from wind and solar into fuel for hydrogen-generation, we would, in effect, be solving this problem because the hydrogen could then be used to generate electricity, to run engines or fuel cells."

Researchers led by Woodall have been developing aluminum-based that generate hydrogen from water, first reporting on the approach in 2007. The Purdue Research Foundation has filed a separate provisional patent application on the new process for seawater and also holds title to the original patent application filed in 2007 for the freshwater process. The researchers also have presented peer-reviewed papers on the overall technology.

The splits water by reacting with the oxygen atoms in water molecules, liberating hydrogen in the process. The waste product, aluminum hydroxide, can be recycled back to aluminum using existing commercial processes.

"Since aluminum is low-cost, abundant and has an energy density larger than coal, this technology can be used on a global scale and could greatly reduce the global consumption of fossil fuels," Woodall said. "Also, by co-locating a solar farm or wind turbine complex and an aluminum smelter at a utilities plant, the smelter could be operated around the clock using utility electricity during off-peak times."

The material is made of tiny grains of aluminum surrounded by an alloy containing gallium, indium and tin, which is liquid at room temperature. The liquid alloy dissolves the aluminum, causing it to react with seawater and release hydrogen, Woodall said.

Unlike other techniques for generating hydrogen using aluminum, the Purdue team uses bulk metal, not powdered aluminum.

"This is important because being able to generate hydrogen with bulk aluminum makes the method practical, whereas using powder is too expensive and cumbersome," Woodall said. "We believe the process is economically competitive with conventional fuels for transportation and power generation."

A key to developing the technology is controlling the microscopic structure of the solid aluminum and the gallium-indium-tin alloy mixture.

"This only works because there is liquid gallium between the grains of aluminum, which dissolves the aluminum bit by bit," he said. "The dissolved aluminum then reacts with water to release hydrogen."

The formulation contains 90 percent aluminum and 10 percent of the liquid alloy. The reaction also produces heat, which could be harnessed to generate electricity.

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GSwift7
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
"This is important because being able to generate hydrogen with bulk aluminum makes the method practical, whereas using powder is too expensive and cumbersome"

lol, that's an understatement. Powdered Al is extremely explosive. My dad's former employer in Louisville, KY had an entire building get vaporized one day by powdered aluminum. It must be handled in a constant Nitrogen environment. As the above article states, the reaction that takes place when Aluminum oxidizes is very exothermic. It sounds to me like they are still dealing with a reaction that would be difficult to control on board a ship. If I owned an oil tanker, how much potentially explosive material would I want on board besides the petroleum itself? Once again, you're talking about a system that would require an engineer on board a ship to keep it operating safely, from the sound of it. If this were anywhere near being commercially viable, it would be bigger news than this seems to be. Something smells fishy here.
GSwift7
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
My father helped to prepare this document:
http://www.alumin...2006.pdf

He is a leading expert in the field and has consulted in several disasters involving powered metal explosions and fires. Rather than recycle the waste aluminum oxide back to aluminum, they should look into using it for paint pigment in it's oxidized form. Gold and silver metallic car paint, and the color-changing paints and inks, like the one used on US $20 bills are composed of powered aluminum oxide.

It's still a very unpleasant chemical to work with. It's a key ingredient in many millitary explosives. Aluminum isn't friendly when it's in small particles like it would be in the waste product of the above reactions.
nicknick
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
I am concerned about the use of the Gallium-Indium-Tin alloy mixture. Indium is extremely expensive and Gallium is also quite expensive. The described process can only be commercialized if the GIT mixture is not consumed or can be fully recuperated.
JamesThomas
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
Large diesel powered container ships add tons of crap to our atmosphere everyday. It would be wonderful to see this come to an end.
Parsec
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
I am concerned about the use of the Gallium-Indium-Tin alloy mixture. Indium is extremely expensive and Gallium is also quite expensive. The described process can only be commercialized if the GIT mixture is not consumed or can be fully recuperated.

Even if it was fully regenerated, the amount of Indium on the world market now and for the foreseeable future would not enable this to be used for converting millions of vehicles.
david_42
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
"The waste product, aluminum hydroxide, can be recycled back to aluminum ..."

By wasting large quantities of electricity.
Trim
not rated yet Oct 25, 2010
Wouldn't it be useful for submarines?
Or would the heat signature be a give away?