A team of scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have achieved what appears to be the “holy grail” of water splitting technology for the production and storage of clean, abundant energy. Because sunlight is free, I’m calling this “free energy.”
To understand this breakthrough, it’s important to first understand why solar power has so many limitations. Solar is great when the sun is shining, but storing solar power require the deployment of a large array of heavy, expensive and toxic electrical storage devices known as “deep cycle batteries.” To put it in street terms, deep cycle battery technology sucks. The batteries suck, the chemicals suck, the weight sucks and the cost sucks. There is absolutely nothing to like about batteries unless you enjoy hulking around with heavy, useless objects.
So the “holy grail” of solar power has always been finding a way to store solar energy that’s portable, dense and relatively lightweight. Until now, that discovery has been elusive.
But now a team of scientists in Boulder, Colorado say they have come up with “a radically new technique that uses the power of sunlight to efficiently split water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen, paving the way for the broad use of hydrogen as a clean, green fuel.”
Sunlight, mirrors and a reaction chamber
The system works by exploiting a large array of ground mirrors to focus sunlight onto a tall reaction tower. There, the intense heat (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit) powers a reaction chamber containing metal oxides. The heat drives oxygen atoms off the metal oxides, causing them to “soak up” the oxygen from steam vapor introduced into the chamber. Steam vapor is, of course, made of water (H2O), so stealing the oxygen atoms from water leaves hydrogen gas that can then be collected.
In effect, the tower uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. The hydrogen gas is then collected, purified and pumped into high-pressure hydrogen containers which, pound for pound, are extremely dense “batteries” of energy that far out-perform chemical batteries.
Better yet, hydrogen gas then holds all this energy with 100% efficiency, losing no potential whatsoever, even if stored for decades. From an environmental perspective, hydrogen is also a super clean-burning fuel, producing no carbon dioxide emissions or particulate matter. (The reason hydrogen does not produce CO2 when combusted is because it does not contain carbon, obviously. CO2 production requires a carbon-based source of fuel such as hydrocarbons — coal, gasoline, diesel, etc.)
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the 4% of the universe we’ve so far discovered
Scientists like to say that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. But since 96% of the known universe is actually a mysteries unidentified “dark matter” that cannot be seen or touched, this is really just a guess. There may, in fact, be a “dark hydrogen” equivalent that is far more abundant than the hydrogen we know.
Nevertheless, in terms of the stuff we can see, feel, touch and produce, hydrogen is incredibly clean and readily abundant. Planet Earth, being a “water planet” with abundant water sloshing around, has a massive supply of hydrogen fuel locked up as water molecules. If solar energy can be efficiently used to split H2O into clean hydrogen fuel, then we finally have a realistic pathway for transitioning away from the fossil fuel economy and toward a hydrogen fuel economy.
This sunlight-powered water splitting tower could be the miracle breakthrough the world needs to end its hydrocarbon addiction. It could also turn northwest Mexico into an energy production hub, as the best places to build these hydrogen production towers would be in dry, cloudless deserts that are near a source of ocean water. The Mexican lands surrounding the Gulf of California would be ideal for such projects.
Burning hydrogen is child’s play; fusion reactors are the far better way to go
Despite all the promise of splitting water and burning the hydrogen as fuel, I think it’s worth noting that burning hydrogen gas is a stupid way to turn hydrogen into fuel. The far smarter use of hydrogen is to use it as a fuel in fusion reactors that produce “gobs” of electricity if I may humor you with yet more street slang.
Theoretically, hydrogen isolates extracted from seawater through the use of simple chemical separation techniques can be used as a fuel in hydrogen fusion reactors. In a fusion reactor hydrogen mass is turned into energy according Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2.
Via mass-to-energy conversion, a very small amount of hydrogen can produce many orders of magnitude more energy than burning the same hydrogen (which is only a chemical reaction, not a nuclear reaction). I don’t know exactly how many orders of magnitude more energy we’re talking about here, but I’m guessing somewhere in the range of 9 – 10 (and I welcome anyone who has the actual answer to let us know so we can update it here). Nine orders of magnitude is a billion times more energy.
To get an idea of how much energy hydrogen can produce, you’ve probably heard the term “hydrogen bomb.” This is a bomb constructed to turn hydrogen (and special isotopes) into pure energy in order to cause maximum tactical destruction.
Ultimately, the energy goals of human civilization should include finding ways to run hot fusion reactors that produce excess energy. Until that day comes, burning hydrogen fuel is at least a cleaner chemical reaction than burning hydrocarbons. And solar-powered water splitting technologies may be the key to making hydrogen production cheap and abundant.
Oh, and don’t worry about running out of hydrogen. When you “burn” it, it reacts with oxygen in the air to form water, the byproduct of hydrogen combustion. Hydrogen isn’t destroyed in the process, so you never run out. As long as the sun keeps shining, you’ll always have abundant hydrogen energy here on Earth, as hydrogen is merely the “carrier” of the energy, not a consumable fuel itself like oil.