June 02 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: General Rating: 2
Researchers at the University of Illinois have created a synthetic catalyst model of the active hydrogen producing site of a naturally occuring enzyme based on 'cheap and plentiful building blocks – iron, nickel and sulfur.'
The results could achieve the catalytic performance seen in rare and expensive metals such as platinum, and further humankind's ability to use nanostructured systems to elegantly manipulate the interactions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, electrons, photons and metals to enable new forms of energy production, storage and conversion.
“Nature relies on a very elaborate architecture to support its own ‘hydrogen economy,’ ” said Chemistry Professor Thomas Rauchfuss, a professor of and corresponding author of the paper. “We cracked that design by generating mock-ups of the catalytic site to include the substrate hydrogen atom.”
Manipulating Natural Molecular Building Blocks
Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions via catalysis. Today, human beings know very little about the molecular magic of hydrogen producing enzymes (known as 'hydrogenase') and the complex reactions that occur inside the core reaction sites.
Developing accurate models of these activation sites is the first step towards developing low cost synthetic catalysts that can break the bonds of oxygen and hydrogen or carbon and hydrogen. The Illinois team is the first to model a nickel-iron structure with the use of a key link or bridge (hydride ligand).
Hydrogen's Hype vs Profitable Role of Chemical Storage & Distributed Power Generation
Hydrogen is definitely misunderstood, but it should not be underestimated.
It is either oversold by hype-oriented energy evangelists, or demonized as a 'dream' by skeptics who fail to understand the rapidly evolving knowledge base of catalysis and humankind's ability to engineer systems that maniuplate molecules at the nanoscale.
(Remember when skeptics thought it was silly to think human beings could create or manipulate 'electrons')
So, when might things turn around for hydrogen?
When entrepreneurs and business leaders realize that hydrogen coupled with fuel cells represent a truly disruptive model for a fuel based distributed power generation. (Utilities beware!)
A Low End Disruptive Business Model
'Fuel based' Power Generation: Packets vs Streams
Electricity powers the future. And any vision of a 'hydrogen economy' is really a world powered by electricity. (The energy potential is simply stored via chemical bonds of hydrogen just as gasoline is a 'stored' form of energy that is converted in our car's combustion engine.)
What's the problem with 'streams' of electricity? Access & Portability
Today, the only way we can get access to electricity is via a wall socket.
Batteries are awful at storing energy and require us to plug in for more juice.
This socket-based model was designed for a 1950s era of highly regulated centralized power plants that fed a grid which brought electrons to brand new classes of 'appliances' that revolutionized life in the home.
This centralized production and 'wire' grid distribution was not designed for a world filled with mobile devices and thin television screens that hang on our walls. Nor was it designed for a world of 'peak' power consumption with high energy consumption devices like air conditioners. And it was certainly not designed for plug in hybrid cars.
Today, the 'stream' of electricity reigns and there is no viable way to store energy or distribute and generate electricity beyond large scale power plants.
But hydrogen and hydrogen-rich liquid fuels coupled with fuel cells can change the game via more bottom up, private sector driven processes that aim to chip away at our reliance on the grid.
How do we do it? Onsite Power Generation or Fuel Delivery
If we want to break away from central power plants we can produce the energy onsite (e.g. rooftop solar cells) or we can have 'fuel' delivered to us and convert it onsite (e.g. fuel cell).
For many reasons, I believe that a distributed 'fueling' model is more viable than onsite power generation. But we'll save that for another post!!
Imagine picking up all your energy needs for the month in a single trip to the supermarket?
Or having a delivery truck deliver 6 months of energy in a single visit?
Is Hydrogen the next 'Bottled Water'?
By switching from an access to 'stream' delivery model to a retail-shelf based 'packet' model we change the value proposition of hydrogen.
Micro fuel cells integrated into products (cell phones, TVs, laptops, lamps, coffee makers, et al) are micro-power plants. As long as they have fuel they deliver electricity on-demand. Quietly, efficiently and at a low cost.
That means flat screen TVs with no dangling cords. Coffee makers sitting anywhere on the counter top. No more cell phone or laptop chargers.
You simple swap out depleted 'packets' with new ones.
Hydrogen is important as a potential 'fuel' for distributed and portable power generation systems based on fuel cell conversion.
Storing hydrogen as a solid (e.g. MOFs) or a liquid (methanol) is akin to selling bottled water to consumers in a world of ubiquitous access to potable water.
At first glance it doesn't seem to make sense, but the reality is that our mobile lives shift the value proposition of energy formats that help us 'unplug'.
Turning Point for Hydrogen
Hydrogen is not going to emerge overnight as a new model for power generation. But it is not, as many sketpics will argue, 'decades away'.
At some point hydrogen production and storage systems will cross that line into commercial viability. We have covered dozens of recent breakthroughs (below) in lower cost production and effective storage systems that are likely to change the game in the years ahead.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons