[Vision2020] Professor Sys Energy Department ‘Egos’ Blocking Hydrogen Breakthrough

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Fri May 18 13:45:46 PDT 2007


A Purdue University engineer and National Medal of Technology winner says
he's ready and able to start a revolution in clean energy.

Professor Jerry Woodall and students have invented a way to use an aluminum
alloy to extract hydrogen from water — a process that he thinks could
replace gasoline as well as its pollutants and emissions tied to global

But Woodall says there's one big hitch: "Egos" at the U.S. Department of
Energy, a key funding source for energy research, "are holding up the

Woodall says the method makes it unnecessary to store or transport hydrogen
— two major challenges in creating a hydrogen economy.

"The hydrogen is generated on demand, so you only produce as much as you
need when you need it," he said in a statement released by Purdue this week.

So instead of having to fill up at a station, hydrogen would be made inside
vehicles in tanks about the same size as today's gasoline tanks. An internal
reaction in those tanks would create hydrogen from water and 350 pounds
worth of special pellets.

"No extra room would be needed," Woodall said, "and the added weight would
be the equivalent of an extra passenger, albeit a pretty large extra

The hydrogen would then power an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell

"It's a simple matter to convert ordinary internal combustion engines to run
on hydrogen," Woodall said. "All you have to do is replace the gasoline fuel
injector with a hydrogen injector."

*How it works*

Here's how it all happens: Hydrogen is generated spontaneously when water is
added to pellets of the alloy, which is made of aluminum and a metal called

"When water is added to the pellets, the aluminum in the solid alloy reacts
because it has a strong attraction to the oxygen in the water," Woodall
said. "No toxic fumes are produced."

This reaction splits the oxygen and hydrogen contained in water, releasing
hydrogen in the process.

An electrical and computer engineering professor, Woodall first discovered
the basic process while working as a researcher in the semiconductor
industry in 1967.

"I was cleaning a crucible containing liquid alloys of gallium and
aluminum," Woodall said. "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."

That research led to advances in cell phones, solar cells, optical-fiber
communications and light-emitting diodes, and earned Woodall the 2001
National Medal of Technology from President Bush.

In recent years, Woodall built a team of Purdue electrical, mechanical,
chemical and aeronautical engineering students to fine-tune the process.

*Cost speed bumps*

The Purdue Research Foundation holds title to the primary patent. And a
startup company, AlGalCo LLC, has received a license for the exclusive right
to commercialize the process.

But there are some speed bumps on the highway to hydrogen.

With internal combustion engines, the cost of recycling the aluminum oxide
must be reduced to make the process competitive with gasoline at $3 a

"Right now it costs more than $1 a pound to buy aluminum, and, at that
price, you can't deliver a product at the equivalent of $3 per gallon of
gasoline," Woodall said.

That cost could come way down, he figures, if the recycling is done with
electricity from nuclear power plants, wind turbines or even solar power
plants if economically viable. The aluminum oxide and gallium would be
shipped to such plants, using electrolysis to break the oxide back down to
aluminum, Woodall said, "and we start the cycle all over again."

If used in fuel cells, the process would be economically competitive with
gasoline, Woodall noted. "Using pure hydrogen, fuel cell systems run at an
overall efficiency of 75 percent, compared to 40 percent using hydrogen
extracted from fossil fuels and with 25 percent for internal combustion
engines," Woodall said.

But the fuel cell systems themselves are still much more expensive and less
reliable than internal combustion engines. "When and if fuel cells become
economically viable, our method would compete with gasoline at $3 per gallon
even if aluminum costs more than a dollar per pound," Woodall said.

*Funding speed bump*

For Woodall, the biggest speed bump lies elsewhere. "The egos of program
managers at DOE are holding up the revolution," he told msnbc.com.

"Remember that Einstein was a patent examiner and had no funding for his
1905 miracle year," Woodall added. "He did it on his own time. If he had
been a professor at a university in the U.S. today and put in a proposal to
develop the theory of special relativity it would have been summarily

"Likewise, since I won my National Medal of Technology for compound
semiconductors and not making hydrogen, DOE does not recognize me as a
member of the club." As evidence, Woodall said DOE last summer rejected two
"pre-proposals" for funding, "i.e., I was not invited to send in full
proposals on my work."


Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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