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Hydrogen, photosynthesis to replace fossil fuels

Posted: 29 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fossil fuels  renewable sources  hydrogen power  artificial photosynthesis 

Green energy initiatives are striving to replace fossil fuels with renewable resources like hydrogen and photosynthesis.

The U.S. Energy Department (DoE) is funding university research on near-term applications for hydrogen power in order to demonstrate its feasibility while drumming up public support for the technology. Meanwhile, medium-term applications for commercial fuel cell technology are still gearing up.

For the long-term, the European Science Foundation (ESF) is developing artificial photosynthesis technologies to harness solar energy to produce cheap fuels, including hydrogen, alcohol and even the hydrocarbons from natural gas and oil.

"We are investigating early market applications of hydrogen for the Department of Energy," said professor Scott Grasman of the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla), where hydrogen is already powering campus shuttle buses using converted internal combustion engines. "We are identifying applications where the cost and technology curve are such that we can get fuel cells into the hands of users now."

According to Grasman, short-term applications for fuel cells should be implemented now. Not only will early applications demonstrate the feasibility of hydrogen technologies, they will also educate the public about painful, but needed, infrastructure changes such as hydrogen refueling stations.

"Fuel cell vehicles and power generation in residential settings are further down the road, so we are looking are near-term applications such as materials handling equipment . . . as well as near-term consumer electronics applications," said Grasman.

As is often the case with fledgling technologies, Grasman expects the U.S. military to fund many early applications.

"The military is especially interested in materials handling equipment as an early adopter for fuel cell technology," said Grasman. "Hydrogen will help with the military's battlefield readiness, because it avoids the big logistical issues of getting petrol onto the battlefield."

The Missouri school has built hydrogen refueling stations on campus. The university has also completed a pilot study on how hydrogen power can be used at airports, not only to save energy with renewable resources but also to educate the public about the coming hydrogen economy.

The school also plans to enter EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge, a contest sponsored by DoE, General Motors, Natural Resources Canada and Argonne National Laboratory. Researchers plan to convert a GM Saturn View to be powered by fuel cells.

Separately, ESF is funding long-term research to develop artificial photosynthesis that mimics the ability of plants to directly convert sunlight to biofuels. Research is focusing on cyanobacteria, which the foundation claims predates the green leaf by 370 crore (3.7 billion) years in its ability to convert sunlight into biofuels.

Cyanobacteria use water molecules as a source of electrons to transport energy from sunlight while converting carbon dioxide into oxygen in the process. This light-harvesting ability was sequestered by early proto-plants, which ingests the cyanobacteria for use in photosynthetic conversion of sunlight energy. In the process, oxygen is produced as a byproduct.

ESF scientists claim that by mimicking the actions of cyanobacteria, different useful fuels can be synthesised from water and sunlight, including hydrogen, alcohols and hydrocarbons of natural gas and oil.

So far, small-scale demonstrations have proven the feasibility of artificial photosynthesis, but Euoropean scientists predict that the higher efficiencies required to commercialise the technology will take from 10 to 20 years to develop.

ESF scientists are pursuing two parallel tracks: genetically engineered plants and bacteria that perform the desired conversions; and electronic devices that mimic photosynthesis.

Electronic devices could be mass produced, but genetically engineered plants and bacteria could rival them through biological reproduction. The largest remaining engineering hurdle to both approaches, according to ESF scientists, is a precise understanding of how plants produce complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats from the splitting of water into hydrogen, oxygen and electrons.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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