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Producing hydrogen with water and a little metal

Purdue professor makes hydrogen by mixing water, gallium and aluminum, eliminating the need to store hydrogen.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Although many people are skeptical about hydrogen becoming a source of fuel, it certainly isn't slowing down research into making the stuff.

Purdue University professor Jerry Woodall has discovered a way to make hydrogen out of a reaction of water and an alloy of aluminum and gallium. The production technique eliminates the need to store hydrogen, he said. Mixing water and pellets made up of the alloy in a tank can produce fuel for a small engine, or conceivably a car.

The process, along with other recent hydrogen developments, could work to dispel some of the criticism of hydrogen as a fuel source in the coming decades. Although it's the most abundant element in the universe, producing hydrogen for commercial applications is expensive and generates greenhouse gases. Prototype hydrogen-fuel-cell cars also run close to a million dollars. Proponents, including some researchers at national labs, believe that if cheap, nonpolluting production methods can be achieved, hydrogen power might make its way into some types of motors.

Aluminum has a strong urge to react with oxygen, which is why aluminum is an accelerant in rocket fuel. The aluminum thus extracts the oxygen from water and frees up hydrogen from the water molecule.

In ordinary circumstances, a skin would form over the aluminum, preventing further reactions.

The Purdue Research Foundation holds title to the primary patent, which has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and is pending. An Indiana start-up company, AlGalCo, is licensing the patent and will try to commercialize the idea.

Woodall estimates that the technique could produce fuel that would compete with gas at $3 a gallon (assuming current prices for aluminum, which are above $1 a pound). The actual fuel would be more expensive, but because hydrogen engines are more efficient, the cost difference would dissipate.

Woodall discovered that hydrogen could be produced out of water, aluminum and gallium while working in the semiconductor industry in 1967. Woodall, some students and AlGalCo are now trying to refine the process for manufacturing.

"I was cleaning a crucible containing liquid alloys of gallium and aluminum. When I added water to this alloy--talk about a discovery--there was a violent poof. I went to my office and worked out the reaction in a couple of hours to figure out what had happened. When aluminum atoms in the liquid alloy come into contact with water, they react, splitting the water and producing hydrogen and aluminum oxide," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, others are working on hydrogen solutions, too. Ecotality has come up with a way to produce hydrogen with magnesium oxide pellets, while New York's Signa Chemistry says it can pull hydrogen out a reaction from sodium, water and silicon.

Stanford University professor James Swartz, by contrast, has found a microorganism that takes sunlight and splits water molecules. Swartz's work has generated a start-up called Fundamental Applied Biology.

Fuel cell makers are also trying to come up with vehicles that can be powered by aluminum. Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies recently showed how hydrogen can power small, unmanned aerial vehicles. Daimler Chrysler says it will soon come out with a new prototype hydrogen can and that hydrogen cars will be on the road in the 2012 to 2015 time frame.

Still, many doubt that hydrogen will ever play a role in the U.S. energy infrastructure. At the Clean Energy Venture Summit, James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA and currently an alternative energy advocate, received a standing ovation when he said hydrogen research was a distraction and largely a waste of time. Instead, he, among others, favor alternative transportation concepts like plug-in hybrids or clean diesel.