Fuel from water? New breakthrough brings day closer

Don't plan on filling your gas tank with last night's bathwater. But the ability to turn plain water into a competitively priced fuel could be only 10 years away.

Appropriately enough, this good news comes from Texas, a state working hard to maintain its role as a major energy producer even after its oil and gas run out. One result of research here was announced as a breakthrough Oct. 7 by Texas A&M University's Hydrogen Research Center.

It is no secret that splitting water molecules to release hydrogen could provide a very useful fuel. A number of experimental vehicles already are running on hydrogen. But the problem is finding a way to produce hydrogen cheaply.

Electrochemist John Bockris, who heads the Hydrogen Research Center, says that new electrolysis technology holds the promise of using water to produce hydrogen fuel equivalent to $1-a-gallon gasoline.

Previous experiments in using solar-generated electricity to produce a molecule-splitting reaction in water have run into problems with oxidization or corrosion. But two A&M researchers, Dr. Marek Szklarczyk and Dr. A. Q. Contractor, have developed low-cost, platinum-coated silicon electrodes which have performed extremely well in small-scale laboratory tests.

Research associate Oliver Murphy, a photoelectric chemist, explains that ''what we are trying to do is split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas cheaply, by using the sun's energy.'' Expanding on known silicon semiconductor technology , he says, ''we have achieved a net efficiency of 12 percent.'' This high level, which compares with previous results of 2 to 3 percent, means that hydrogen fuel can be produced cost effectively if a full-scale production plant works as well as the laboratory model.

Other major research centers, such as the University of Miami's Clean Energy Research Institute, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California, Berkekey, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are deeply involved in hydrogen research. Gabor Somorjai, a chemistry professor at Berkeley, explains why. ''Once you make hydrogen, you can combine it with nitrogen to make ammonia for fertilizer, you can combine it with with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide to make gasoline and many other products,'' he says.

''So hydrogen obtained cheaply would be an extremely important development,'' he says of the Texas A&M project.

But Dr. Somorjai cautions that ''. . . splitting water and then collecting the hydrogen requires a technology that has to be paid for.'' He says that ''the cheap energy source might be solar light or it might be nuclear power, but one has to work hard not only to make the discovery, but also the technology.''

Dr. Murphy is equally aware of the challenges ahead, pointing out that ''at the moment, we are working with a small-scale cell of one square centimeter. Next we need to scale it up to find out what happens at that stage.'' He says ''it isn't simple going from the small-scale laboratory bench up to a full-scale hydrogen production facility.'' But he is optimistic, saying that ''I think the efficiency we have achieved is the highest to date and we firmly believe that this has commercial application in the long term, perhaps the next decade or even maybe less.''

To pay for the next step in testing what Dr. Bockris calls a tremendous potential for developing a new pollution-free fuel, Texas A&M is seeking additional funding from private industry. Currently working with a $59,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and five $20,000 grants from Exxon, Sohio, Arco, Diamond Shamrock, and Koppers, the university hopes to sign up five more corporate donors at meeting planned for Nov. 1. If the university obtains $ 200,000 in private funds, the National Science Foundation will contribute a matching $200,000 per year to expand the university's hydrogen fuel research activities.

Murphy says that electrolysis used with finely crushed coal slurry particles may prove even more important than turning water into fuel. Working with coal slurry in a sulfuric acid solution, he says, ''could lead to almost cost-free hydrogen fuel.''

He says this method requires relatively less electrical input than with water , giving an immediate cost saving. And electrolysis applied to coal slurry also produces important organic chemicals, such as methane and ''something approaching the structure of oil,'' he says. If this process can be turned into a commercial-scale operation, he predicts, ''you could sell these organic chemicals at a nice price and still produce hydrogen as a cost-free byproduct.''

According to Murphy, ''The only thing that is hindering hydrogen use at the moment is the cost, so a lot of people are looking for a cheap method to produce it and we think that our photoelectrolysis work and our coal slurry work could have potential in this direction.''

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