Thinking Tech

What is holding back hydrogen energy?

Posting in Energy

To get a sense of what is happening in hydrogen energy today, multiply the efforts of Robert Dopp and QSI by 100, in cul de sacs, office parks, and university research centers around the world. Some are American. Others are not.

In a quiet cul de sac in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, battery expert Robert Dopp (right) is trying to get past a bottleneck that has held hydrogen energy back for years.

How do you increase the efficiency of water electrolysis so more of the electricity you put into the process comes out in usable hydrogen gas?

Platinum, the most common material used in electrodes for electrolysis, loses half the energy put into the process. Dopp has been working with nanomaterials which, he says, can achieve 75% efficiency and, thus, make electrolysis as efficient as hydrogen from natural gas.

Hydrogen energy is an effort filled with false starts and setbacks. Dopp's main corporate backer, QuantumSphere Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., has put his work on "the back burner." A spokesman for Dopp says he's in "stealth mode."

QSI is also working on a second important hydrogen problem, ammonia. "Solid storage of 5% hydrogen means that an additional 95% dead weight must be hauled and then regenerated by a process that is not easy or fast," a QSI spokesman writes.

The current cost of anhydrous ammonia is $250/ton and as a hydrogen source (17.6%) the cost is $1.58 Kg/H2. A kilogram of hydrogen is roughly equal in energy to a gallon of gasoline so that is half the current cost of gas at our local pumps.

Converting ammonia back into hydrogen and nitrogen just requires passing it through a catalyst. Ammonia can also be used directly in a common internal combustion engine. The carburetor is the same as used in propane engines.

To get a sense of what is happening in hydrogen energy today, multiply these efforts by 100, in cul de sacs, office parks, and university research centers around the world. Some are American. Others are not.

The reason I call the Climate Bill a jobs bill is because it creates market incentives for these people, pushing the full costs of pollution onto carbon energy so non-carbon energy has an advantage. Critics charge any increased price for carbon energy is a "tax" that will cost jobs.

But it's really a question of what kind of jobs you want to have. Do we want our kids to be coal miners or dreamers like Robert Dopp? (Picture from Doppstein.com.)

I'd rather they be dreamers.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure