Science and society are common topics of discussion here. As frequently noted on this blog, a great number of our foriegn policy and domestic economic headaches could be made to go away if we were not dependent on foreign oil or oil at all. Alternatives have been discussed, but one of the most promising technologies – hydrogen – has time and again run into the issue of how to manufacture carbon-free or clean hydrogen. A new technology developed by doctoral student Erik Koepf working out of the University of Delaware and currently being tested in Switzerland shows promise of delivering hydrogen production free from carbon dioxide and other undesirable emissions.
Traditional methods of manufacturing hydrogen involve fractionating natural gas. This process negates any benefit of burning the hydrogen because the volume of carbon dioxide released in the manufacturing process is comparably as polluting as burning traditional fossil fuels. Koepf’s process essentially involves super heating zinc oxide via solar concentration in a cylinder filled with layers of ceramic and ultra-high temperature insulation materials. Zinc oxide is a benign substance similar to baking soda. Once a high temperature is achieved – in the test, a temperature of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit or approximately 1/3 the temperature of the surface of the sun will be used – a gravity fed system is used to introduce zinc oxide to the cylinder. This causes a chemical reaction that converts the zinc oxide into a pure zinc vapor. This vapor is catalyzed with water during the next step producing hydrogen and zinc oxide. Because one of the byproducts of the process is the primary catalyst for the process and possibly reusable, this has the theoretical benefit of being a self-sustaining process.
All of Koepf’s work up to this point has been on the design itself, building the prototype and building and testing the control systems of the prototype. April 5 marked the start date for six weeks of testing the reactor at temperature at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. These tests will not only measure the reliability of the reactor mechanism(s) at temperature but measure the amount of hydrogen produced and help determine if the production rate merits taking the reactor design beyond the prototype stage and into an industrial scale test. Although Koepf’s work has been primarily funded by the Federal Transit Administration, he is currently working to patent his design through the University of Delaware’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. If this works, Erik Koepf could be a name that goes down in the history of science as someone who fundamentally influenced the world and likely for the better.
The question then becomes, if this works, how do we best proceed? Manufacturing facilities, safe delivery channels and safe storage facilities will need to be developed. Transportation and power companies will need to be incentivized to adopt hydrogen. Key to all is the manufacturing process.
Given that the oil industry directly used their improper influence over the Bush Administration to both force an invasion of Iraq – a country that did not attack us on 9/11 – and evade attacking Saudi Arabia – the country that did man and fund the 9/11 attacks but were and are business partners in the oil industry with the Bush family – if this technology does play out in providing a sustainable clean form of alternative energy, should we as a nation allow the oil industry to participate in the manufacturing and distribution of hydrogen given the heinous nature of their past bad acts? Should we nationalize hydrogen production and distribution? Should be create new monopolies discrete from the petroleum industry? Should we simply bar those bad actors from participating by force of law?
Once we overcome the supply issues for carbon-free energy, there is no reason we should allow the same corporate criminals currently running the oil industry to take over the (potentially) burgeoning hydrogen industry. They are known bad actors with a propensity to pursue profit over all other considerations including peace, human health, safety and welfare and the environment. We have options and at this early stage it is a pertinent and prudent time to consider those options if (and when) we can move forward with the first viable form of alternative energy. Which options should we consider? What do you think the best political and economic path to energy independence is once the technical barriers are breached?
What do you think?
~ Submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger