|28 Sep 2002 @ 21:52, by Kay Simmons|
University of California at Berkeley professor Tasios Melis
Researchers seeking another energy source to ease the world's
dependency on fossil fuels may have found a small answer to a
A microscopic green algae -- known to scientists as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, and to regular folk as pond scum -- was discovered more than 60 years ago to split water into hydrogen and oxygen under controlled conditions. A recent breakthrough in controlling the algae's hydrogen yield has prompted a Berkeley, California, company to try to be first to commercialize production.
Algae: Power Plant of the Future? By John Gartner 2:00 a.m. Aug. 19, 2002 PDT
Energy experts -- who disagree on the when, but not the if, of the eventual depletion of fossil fuels -- are predicting that within decades the world will switch to a utopian hydrogen economy, where energy will be abundant, inexpensive and nonpolluting.
Hydrogen is used by fuel cells to generate electricity without generating those nasty greenhouse gases.
Hydrogen can be extracted from fossil fuels, but currently it's more expensive than directly using oil or natural gas, so this method is only a temporary fix. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis, but that requires electricity generated from fossil fuels, or from renewable sources such as wind or solar that are even more costly.
The potential of algae to be used as microscopic power plants was first discovered by Hans Gaffron, a German researcher who fled the Nazi party and came to the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Gaffron observed in 1939 that the algae would for a then-unknown reason sometimes switch from producing oxygen to instead creating hydrogen, but only for a short period of time.
For 60 years, researchers tried to harness the power potential of algae, without success.
A breakthrough came in 1999 when University of California at Berkeley professor Tasios Melis, along with researchers from the National Renewable Energy Lab, discovered that depriving the algae of sulfur and oxygen would enable it to produce hydrogen for sustained periods of time.
Melis was working on research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, investigating how plants repaired themselves when damaged by conditions such as lack of sulfur, an ingredient necessary to make proteins.
Melis found that algae must eventually be supplied sulfur to survive, but he was able to repeatedly switch hydrogen production on and off by changing the algae's environment.
Melis launched a company, Melis Energy, in 2001 to try to commercialize a technique that harnesses algae's ability to turn sunlight into hydrogen. In the fall of 2001, the company built a bioreactor containing 500 liters of water and algae that can produce up to 1 liter of hydrogen per hour. A siphoning system extracts the hydrogen, which is stored in its gaseous state.
The company is continuing to refine the process and improve its reliability, while also searching for investors so that it can increase production volume.
Melis was tight-lipped about projecting a date when the technology could be used for mass production.
He said that his team of researchers at Berkeley has thus far only been able to achieve 10 percent of the algae's theoretical production capacity, but in the near future he will publish an advancement for peer review.
Once the process reaches a 50 percent yield, Melis said it would be cost-competitive with fossil-fuel energy.
Because the algae require ample sunlight, Melis said the Southwest United States would be a likely region to build production facilities.
Being able to cost-effectively produce hydrogen from a renewable source "would grow demand for hydrogen extensively," said T. Nejat Veziroglu, president of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy.
Veziroglu said that if the United States had a Manhattan Project-like commitment to developing hydrogen production, it could create the necessary infrastructure within 20 years.
"If half the money being spent on terrorism was spent on hydrogen production, we'd have a permanent solution to terrorism," Veziroglu said, referring to the link between some oil-producing countries and terrorist activities.
Melis is one of many researchers around the world vying to reach hydrogen nirvana. Projects are also underway in England, Germany, Russia, France and New Zealand.
Fuel Cell Car Coasts Across U.S. By John Gartner Win a 50" HDTV or a Xerox Printer!
2:00 a.m. June 5, 2002 PDT WASHINGTON -- Call it the little fuel cell engine that could.
DaimlerChrysler's Necar 5 completed the first transcontinental journey of a fuel cell powered vehicle on Tuesday. Even its owners weren't sure the feat was possible, considering the technology's nascent state of development.
Although renewable-energy backers hailed the accomplishment, most agree that it's too early to tell when or if hydrogen will replace petroleum as the predominant source of transportation energy.
The Necar 5 sedan left San Francisco on May 20 for a 3,262-mile trip that provided the first durability test for a fuel cell vehicle. The trip featured diverse weather conditions that included rain, snow, sleet, as well as 95-degree heat. DaimlerChrysler said the most rigorous test it had performed previously was a 600-mile ride in California.
"We feared everyday that we weren't going to make it," said Wolfgang Weiss, who led the team of 16 engineers and technicians that drove the Necar 5. Weiss said the greatest challenges were getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Chicago, and the days when the mercury surpassed 90 degrees. "Fuel cell engines don't like to get hot or stand still."
Weiss said travelling across the Rocky Mountains required the technicians to make several on-the-fly adjustments to the engine, since the higher elevations provide less oxygen for the engine -- a problem that future generations of fuel cells will have to adjust for automatically.
DaimlerChrysler conducted the test, which took 85 hours of driving over 12 days, to demonstrate that progress has been made in developing fuel cell vehicles. The company said these vehicles are not likely to be commercially available in quantity until at least 2010.
Car companies are developing fuel cell engines as alternatives to internal combustion engines that rely on the finite reserves of fossil fuels. The U.S. dependence on foreign oil for 60 percent of its energy needs is seen as a security threat.
"Today we are showing what is possible beyond fossil fuel dependency," said DaimlerChrysler head of fuel cell development Ferdinand Panik.
The Necar 5 is powered by a methanol fuel cell engine designed by Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver. Methanol comes from natural gas, coal, or biomass substances such as wood. Methanol is seen as superior to petroleum because its major byproduct is water vapor and it contributes only a fraction of the harmful pollutants.
The methanol fuel for the Necar 5 was provided by energy company Methanex, which has distributors across the United States.
According to Weiss, no components of the fuel cell engine had to be repaired during the journey. An electrical short caused by moisture delayed the trip for one day, and two belts, four fuel filters, and one water compartment had to be replaced.
The trip ended in front of the U.S. Capitol to garner support from Congress, which boosted research spending on fuel cell vehicles by 19 percent in fiscal year 2003, according to Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) who was on hand for the event.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said the success of the Necar 5 gave us a "glimpse of the green future." But Levin admitted there was a "long road to go" in making fuel cells commercially viable.
Across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, the leading minds in automotive research gathered at the Department of Energy's Future Car Congress to discuss the transition from petroleum to renewable energies such as fuel cells.
Representatives from government, the auto industry and chemical companies agreed that moving away from petroleum was inevitable, but the how, when, and with-what-fuel remains uncertain.
During presentations at the conference, industry executives touted several candidate fuels that can power fuel cells including methanol, ethanol, natural gas, gasoline, or liquid or compressed hydrogen. Companies are developing fuel cell engines or "stacks" around each of these sources, but it's too early to tell how many, if any, could compete with gasoline.
"None of the (renewable fuel) technologies has a clear advantage," said Dick Ziegler, director of the transportation program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Bob Parks, associate secretary at the Department of Energy, said the agency is "committed to making hydrogen America's clean choice," but would not say if any of today's fuel cell technologies would someday compete with gasoline engines. "It could be something that we haven't even thought of yet."
General Motors vice president Larry Burns said the cost of fuel cell vehicles is the major challenge to their success. Burns said the price must be reduced by 90 percent to compete with internal combustion engines.
In addition to cost, researchers also must determine how to significantly increase the storage capacity of fuel cell vehicles to enable them to drive as far as a gas car without refueling. The Necar 5 required about twice as many gallons of methanol as a gasoline car, according to DaimlerChrysler.
Once the questions of cost and storage capacity are answered, the fuel must then be made available to the public. Additionally, fuel must be just as convenient as today's gasoline is at plentiful pumping stations, said GM's Burns. He said moving to a "hydrogen economy" will require the cooperation of energy and chemical companies. This move should coincide with the introduction of fuel cells for home heating and mobile applications.
"It's nothing short of reinventing the automotive industry."
Burns said that when asked how he could sleep at night with so many pressing questions left unanswered, he replied "I sleep like a baby. I wake up every two hours crying."