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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Clean Hydrogen Closer Than Cellulosic Ethanol?

Cellulosic ethanol looks like the magic bullet for biofuels. We could make it out of corn stalks and feed the ears to people and cows instead of SUVs. Better yet, we could skip corn (which takes an awful lot of fertilizer and water to grow) and get cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and other plants that come popping out of the prairie naturally.

The problem: it's a lot harder to break down cellulose than corn (don't know what I mean? go chew on a corn stalk). We need to break that cellulosic material in sugars, then turn bacteria loose to convert the sugar to ethanol.

An eager reader submits an article this morning contending that we might our microbial friends to more elemental use: use bacteria in an electrolytic process that makes hydrogen.

Now some say that's no better: The feds are working on hydrogen, but building the infrastructure for a hydrogen economy may take as long as making cellulosic ethanol work, if not longer.

But the researchers in my reader's submission say nuts to that (that's the spirit!): mix it with natural gas, burn it in your natural gas vehicle—boom! (not literally, we hope) The hydrogen makes the natural gas burn cleaner.

Just some science for you to ponder over your Saturday breakfast!


  1. CHeck out Iceland if you want to see if hydrogen can be done.

  2. Hydrogen is a dead end. It's one of the most corrosive and difficult to store substance in existence. Even if we figure out how to make it inexpensively, we can't effectively store or transport it. The DoD has been investigating it for the past ~12 years and has dumped in excess of $1.2 Billion dollars into it and still cannot effectively store it.

    In stark contrast to ethanol, any engine using it as a primary fuel source corrodes at an incredible rate. Hydrogen embrittlement destroys most anything metal it passes near and passes through most plastics like swiss cheese. Of all the portable renewable technologies, hydrogen has the furthest to go technologically and will require the largest infrastructure investment to succeed.

  3. How about pressurized air? India is making compressed air cars and utility vehicles using air tanks made of safe composite material which can be filled at a station or at home, but like a hybrid has a small motor to pressure the tanks on longer trips. The air powers the engine, and using a wankel rotary engine is more powerful than a reciprocating one, but in both cases there is virtually no wear since there is no ignition. Clever idea. jh

  4. Tony, JH, you guys are just smart! Corrosiveness of hydrogen -- sounds like there's no metal or magic coating to prevent that problem?

    JH, can you build me one of those air cars? Sounds like a bang-up idea... and, I take it, zero emissions?

  5. Is the problem with cellulosic alcohol actually in separating digestible components from the lignin?

    Hydrogen can be generated with wind energy and used on site, but it is a terrible "portable" fuel. Our infrastructure is set up already for gasoline. A book titled "Methanol Economy" suggested combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make methanol which can pretty much be used with existing infrastructure and current vehicle design.

    The $700 Billion bailout money might better be spent on getting the US totally shifted away from fossil fuels.

    Let the financial bubble specialists sort out their own messes. Pay them the equivalent of a military draftee wage.

    What would your answer be to the question, "Why not you invest about $2500 to buy up bad or toxic debt?"

  6. $2500 -- I'd rather use that money to buy a Prius... or maybe help Dad build a still for ethanol!

  7. I'm no smartie CH, but do appreciate good ideas. The problem with rotary engines has been wear issues, but not with clean air. Think you may enjoy this: http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=compressed+air+engine&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-501&fr2=tab-web&tnr=21&vid=000168257310You may enjoy this video:

  8. Try this video from 2006. 4300 psi?! Holy cow! I'm gonna a bigger bike pump to fill that up. One quibble: I like the concept, but I'm not sure I want to listen to an air compressor for four hours every night when I charge it.


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