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Jerry Woodall, a professor at Purdue University invented the new alloy production process, promising affordable, easy hydrogen.  (Source: Purdue University)

Pictures of the alloy in water, reacting to produce hydrogen, as evidenced by bubbling.  (Source: Purdue University)

The byproduct of the process is a recyclable mix of aluminum and gallium-indium-tin ores.  (Source: Purdue University)

Here a Purdue researcher uses the hydrogen produced by the process to power an internal combustion engine.  (Source: Purdue University)
While some hydrogen research focuses on simulating nature, a new metal reagent developed by Purdue University promises economic viability

Jerry Woodall, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, is firmly ground in the world of commercial production.  When he began researching ways to improve hydrogen production using aluminum reagents, his goal was simple -- if it wasn't commercially viable, it wasn't a success.

While recent researchers have reported significant breakthroughs in fields such as synthetic photosynthesis and microbial hydrogen production, these methods currently are too inefficient to currently be feasible as a non-subsidized fuel alternative.  While these methods are exciting in that they may one day lead to cleaner and more effective energy production, many agree that the time for hydrogen is now, and waiting for theoretical methods is simply impractical.

Fortunately Purdue's Woodall developed a more down to Earth method of hydrogen production that promises a feasible infrastructure and short term commercial viability.  Woodall states, "We now have an economically viable process for producing hydrogen on-demand for vehicles, electrical generating stations and other applications."

The key to the method is a new aluminum reagent, which Woodall invented.  The new reagent is composed of 95 percent aluminum and then a critical 5 percent mixture of gallium, indium and tin to improve its reactive character.  Previous similar alloys used far more gallium, which is very expensive.  By cutting down the gallium, Woodall greatly reduced the costs of hydrogen production.

When the new alloy is exposed to water, it reacts to create hydrogen gas and oxygen.  The oxygen then bonds to the aluminum to form aluminum oxide, also known as alumina.  It is cheaper to recycle alumina back to aluminum than it is to refine aluminum from bauxite ore, which is another element contributing to its efficiency.  Woodall illuminates, "After recycling both the aluminum oxide back to aluminum and the inert gallium-indium-tin alloy only 60 times, the cost of producing energy both as hydrogen and heat using the technology would be reduced to 10 cents per kilowatt hour, making it competitive with other energy technologies."

Control of the microscopic structure of the solid aluminum and the gallium-indium-tin alloy mixture is critical to the technology's success.   The mixture is a "two-phase" mixture, meaning that it features abrupt changes in composition between one constituent to another.  Woodall explains this challenge stating, "This is because the mixture tends to resist forming entirely as a homogeneous solid due to the different crystal structures of the elements in the alloy and the low   melting point of the gallium-indium-tin alloy.  I can form a one-phase melt of liquid aluminum and the gallium-indium-tin alloy by heating it. But when I cool it down, most of the gallium-indium-tin alloy is not homogeneously incorporated into the solid aluminum, but remains a separate phase of liquid.  The constituents separate into two phases just like ice and liquid water."

Researchers had two options -- fast cooling to leave separate alloys or slow cooling to yield a single solid alloy brick.  At first they tried fast cooling, which required a puddle of gallium-indium-tin to initiate the reaction.  However, when they turned to the slow-cooled alloy, they were impressed to discover that it reacted just as well, or better, eliminating the need for the liquid gallium-indium-tin alloy.  Woodall adds, "That was a fantastic discovery.  What used to be a curiosity is now a real alternative energy technology."

The Purdue team is currently completing work on developing a production method to produce briquettes of the alloy.  These briquettes could be dropped into a tank of water, producing pure hydrogen.  This would eliminate both the need for hydrogen storage and hydrogen transportation, two critical obstacles for the hydrogen industry. 

The gallium-indium-tin alloy in the process is inert and is able to be recovered with almost 100 percent efficiency.  Woodall says even the less efficient aluminum recycling produces much less carbon emissions than traditional fuel.  He states, "The aluminum oxide is recycled back into aluminum using the currently preferred industrial process called the Hall-Héroult process, which produces one-third as much carbon dioxide as combusting gasoline in an engine."

In order to fully realize the technology on a national scale for fuel use, alumina recycling infrastructure would need to be dramatically expanded.  Additionally, gallium-indium-tin recycling would need to be added.  This infrastructure would be expensive, but according to Woodall "the economic risk is large, but the potential payoff is also large."

Woodall won the 2001 National Medal of Technology, the highest award for technological achievement in the U.S.  Woodall his fellow researchers will present their findings on Feb. 26, 2008 at the Materials Innovations in an Emerging Hydrogen Economy conference in Cocoa Beach, Fla.  The alloy production process's primary patent title is owned by the Purdue Research Foundation.  Purdue has licensed the technology to an Indiana startup company, AlGalCo LLC., which Purdue hopes will be the first company to implement the technology commercially.

Purdue's solution is similar to the University of Leeds' new method of producing hydrogen from biofuel waste sludge, in that both solutions are economically feasible, but require the development of production infrastructures.  However the new method from Purdue can make hydrogen from a far more plentiful source -- pure water.

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RE: unsure
By KristopherKubicki on 2/21/2008 3:09:43 PM , Rating: 2
I would think though, we would transport hydrogen from the mine site, not transport aluminum to the hydrogen depot.

Either way, we'd still need a ton of energy to get this kick started.

RE: unsure
By Chernobyl68 on 2/21/2008 3:17:20 PM , Rating: 2
that's a good point, you can easily pipe hydrogen in a gas form I suppose, unless there's some technical problem with hydrogen transports that I'm unaware of...but I think their idea is to have the material at the gas station (for lack of a better term) and use piped water to make the hydrogen, which there's already an infrastructure for.
But, water is not plentiful everywhere. This won't be as popular in dry states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, etc. Many of these states are facing large water crisis' of their own. Using that water to make fuel rather than for consumption, industry, or agriculture has issues.
If this process could be adapted to be used with sea water that would be the "gold ring" in my book.

RE: unsure
By geddarkstorm on 2/21/2008 3:28:00 PM , Rating: 2
Sea water shouldn't be a problem, since it's water and aluminum that react. Though, there could always be other side reactions with salts and iodine in sea water they would have to test for. You can distill all that out of sea water, but that does cost a bit.

The beauty of using hydrogen too is that it just reacts with oxygen to form water all over again.

RE: unsure
By pauluskc on 2/21/2008 4:23:32 PM , Rating: 2
could be interesting.. my car ran out of gas - just piss in the tank. :)

drinking and driving makes a whole lot of new sense now... "officer, I was just preparing for running out of hydro later".

Silly. But funny visual.

RE: unsure
By Mitch101 on 2/21/2008 5:16:34 PM , Rating: 2
Im holding out for a Diet Coke and Mentos powered car personally.

I can enjoy a beverage of my favorite soft drink with the waste. Of course it would probably taste flat but you get used to it after a while.

RE: unsure
By pauluskc on 2/21/08, Rating: 0
RE: unsure
By Chernobyl68 on 2/21/2008 3:45:02 PM , Rating: 2
I think the amount of alloy you'd need to convert a reservoir or cooling pond would draw notice...see my analysis below. Either way, I doubt it would happen so fast that it would lead to a catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear electric plant. likewise any doomsday scenario of converting the ocean to gas. That's the idea behind using seawater instead of freshwater, sewater is so much more abundant.

RE: unsure
By geddarkstorm on 2/21/2008 3:51:21 PM , Rating: 2
Do you even begin to realize how much aluminum it would take to "boil away" (react with) even a small lake of water? To react with just 50 tons of water (45,359,237 grams, or 2,519,957.6 moles) you'd need about 50 tons of aluminum (since very 2 moles of aluminum react with 3 moles of water). Now, 50 tons of water is the amount an adult blue whale swallows in a single gulp--not much at all in the grand scheme of things. Consider it takes about 1000 tons of water to grow 1 ton of grain and you'll begin to see you'd need so much raw, refined aluminum to even begin to affect the amount of water in this world substantially that it's not even funny.

But then, you do realize that the hydrogen will (if not captured and put to work as in say a fuel cell) just react with oxygen to form water all over again? It's because hydrogen and oxygen have such a low free energy for forming water that you don't find raw hydrogen naturally occurring anywhere on the globe.

Also, reacting water in a bottle into hydrogen would make a nice loud "boom" with the bottle finally burst, but that's it. It wouldn't be enough to take out a plane.

RE: unsure
By Keeir on 2/21/2008 3:19:11 PM , Rating: 2
I think the other way.

The genius of this system is that you don't need to really transport Hydrogen. Just solids. Then, at any filling location just drop this into local water and poof hydrogen at some predetermined wieght.

Isn't storage of hydrogen one of the biggest challenges preventing the use of hydrogen? This neatly transfer the problem to storage of semi-reactive metals and water, both which we have solutions too....

RE: unsure
By pauluskc on 2/21/2008 3:37:34 PM , Rating: 2
why not just convert the oil pipelines to hydrogen pipelines? there's already a huge infrastructre in place to distribute gasoline that could be used similarly for hydrogen.


RE: unsure
By Cattman on 2/21/2008 3:56:11 PM , Rating: 2
Because hydrogen leaks out of everything in gaseous state. It will actually leak out of a sealed gas bottle. The atoms are so small they permeate everything. A weld or joint that is liquid tight will probably not be hydrogen tight. Keeping it liquid would be a nightmare as well.

RE: unsure
By FITCamaro on 2/21/2008 4:26:51 PM , Rating: 1
I'm no chemist, but I don't think hydrogen can leak through solid metal. A joint yes. But if you put hydrogen in a sealed metal container, I don't see it getting out.

Regardless of the practicality of this, the real problem is getting the oil industries to embrace it. Because really, they're the ones who have to. The government isn't going to put down the cash to replace oil. It's not really their business to either. And the oil industry is really the only ones with the billions it'll cost to convert our gasoline base infrastructure to a hydrogen one.

Even if it does happen, then the only downside is that a car is going to go far fewer miles on a gasoline tank sized hydrogen fuel cell than it would go on the tank of gas since you have to use a lot more hydrogen to get the same bang as with gas.

RE: unsure
By SolarHydrogen on 2/21/2008 4:35:53 PM , Rating: 3
The issue with piping hydrogen is that it reacts with the metal, turning it brittle and susceptible to cracking.

RE: unsure
By geddarkstorm on 2/21/2008 4:45:04 PM , Rating: 2
It diffuses through some metals--especially steel--and can form pockets of hydrogen gas inside microscopic cavities.

I don't think it'd leak out at a rate of or in the sense of noticable loss of volume during piping. It'll just slowly destroy the pipes. It is a potential issue, which is why this reactive alloy technology is so cool and great.

RE: unsure
By Chernobyl68 on 2/21/2008 5:45:29 PM , Rating: 2
great article, thanks for the link.

RE: unsure
By drwho9437 on 2/21/2008 5:25:48 PM , Rating: 2
You are right you aren't. Hydrogen diffuses through "solids" at fairly low temperatures. The diffusion constant is just proportional to temperature, so at 300K it isn't what it is at say 600K but if you are going to have a lot of it, a lot of it will get out. Hydrogen is one of the hardest things to hold on to.

RE: unsure
By Oregonian2 on 2/21/2008 5:44:06 PM , Rating: 2
Aren't pipelines always being tested for microcracks (etc)? Seems like things would leak. But it's more than that, recall that for energy density the hydrogen has to be at really high pressures, something an oil pipeline wouldn't have been built for. Hydrogen also may be a bit more volatile than crude oil.

RE: unsure
By Keeir on 2/21/2008 6:19:22 PM , Rating: 2
Your also no Structural Analyst. Or Mechancal Engineer.

All gases create pressure vessal situations. To create the required density through put of Hydrogen, well, the gas will need to be at significant pressure. That pressure will put alot of strain (that is signiciantly different than Oil mass loading) on current pipe lengths and joints. The pumping mechanisms that work well for oil, they are not the most efficient for Hydrogen.

Then, the "last mile" that takes the hydrogen to "filling station"... the truck would need to be very strong indeed to withstand the PSI. To get current amount of energy storage as in a modern gastank type volume... that volume would be at 10,000 psi!. Aircraft typically operate at ~10 psi interal gage pressure for a point of reference.

Sorry folks, entire pipeline/gasoline infrastructure would need to be examined, reanalyzed, and potentially replaced to use it for Hydrogen transportation. Thats before Hydrogen Embrittlement and other issues.

RE: unsure
By FITCamaro on 2/22/2008 8:46:26 AM , Rating: 2
Your also no Structural Analyst. Or Mechancal Engineer.

I didn't claim to be. I'm a simple programmer. We leave those gases and stuff to the smart people.

RE: unsure
By Fritzr on 2/21/2008 9:25:56 PM , Rating: 3
My take on this one is shown in the photo ... You fill the car's tank with water, drop in a few briquettes and drive away. Remember the biggest headache in desingning an H2 powered car is how to store the fuel safely.

Filling Stations will sell briquettes and water instead of gasoline and diesel. Transportation of the alumina to the Filling Stations is much easier and safer than oil. Trains can carry bulk alumina, a good way to recycle the current fleet of coal trains :) Hopper trucks will deliver the final mile. Several designs for this kind of load exist. One is for potatos and simply scoops from the bottom of a hopper out the back gate. Another is the classic dump truck...Just back up to the briquette bin and upend the bed :)

Filling Stations will also buy back spent briquettes and send them back to the recycling center. The current recycler infrastructure will also welcome this new commodity that will need to be collected and returned for refining.

The H2 generator will need some refinement for use with 'dirty' water but that is a refinement that will be improved on in years to come.

In arid areas this will be a problem due to water shortage, but I can forsee "fuel" pipelines carrying water to "fueling depots"/tank farms and "fuel" trucks delivering water to Filling Stations just as is done today with petroleum fuels.

RE: unsure
By Chernobyl68 on 2/22/2008 4:29:58 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think you'll have a "spent briquette" left after you put this alloy on a tub of water. To react all of the aluminum you'd be breaking down the alloy atom by atom, so you'd likely be left with a slurry of alumina and other metals. This would then need to be resmelted to remove the metals, process the alumina back to aluminum, and then resmelt the alloy.

RE: unsure
By initialised on 2/22/2008 7:12:41 PM , Rating: 2
To get this started several small scale factories are set up to process recycled aluminium into pellets of reactant and to reprocess spent reactant. Ideal sites would be existing recycling facilities or, if it can be done small scale, existing filling stations.

These pellets are then loaded into small ~5-10kg canisters with an inlet for water and an outlet for hydrogen. The canisters could be made from a material with a sufficiently higher melting point than the fuel so that the canister could be used as a crucible in which the spent fuel is melted.

As you drive water is added to the canister to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen could either be used to top up a bank of capacitors and batteries via a fuel cell or burnt in an internal combustion process or both in a hybrid drive-train. Either way you would have a vehicle with a hydrogen fuel line supplied by the canisters output and a water tank whose size would be governed by the power-to-weight ratio of the vehicle. Since a canister would have a maximum output the minimum number of canister ports would be governed by the maximum hydrogen output required at peak load. The problem of filling up with water is much less of an issue as water is the output of both hydrogen combustion and fuel-cells. This 'waste' is simply recycled from the exhaust though occasional top ups would be necessary as it is unlikely that every water molecule successfully reacts to produce one alumina and two hydrogen atoms or that each hydrogen atom successfully binds to form a water molecule. However, it might be possible to minimise losses by using a liquid oxygen tank (hmmm... liquid oxygen direct injection internal combustion engine, could work underwater or in vacuum) but I digress.

When the reactant is depleted you simply replace the empty canister. Obviously any vehicle would have to have at least two of these replaceable fuel tanks. If peak output was more than a single can could provide then the minimum is three but range would be poor. Exceeding this max load +1 minimum would increase vehicle range. The +1 minimum exists because it is wasteful to dispense of a can before it is depleted and you cannot guarantee that you will run out of fuel at a filling station. In my twelve years on driving this has only happened to me once, I stopped at a diesel only pump in a petrol car and had to push it to the next one.

Used cans would be emptied, cleaned and refilled with pellets made from the waste product ideally in small automated micro-factory at filling stations.

As for the size of the tanks, well that would depend but keeping them under 10kg would help.

Once the infrastructure was in place there would be very little need for additional raw materials except to allow for surplus stock and cope with an expanding fleet and lost cans. Most of this could be obtained from recycled materials.

Whether this model is feasible depends on how far you can get in a typical car on this fuel, maybe it only scales up to portable electronics or down to heavy haulage. The inventors clearly believe it is commercially viable and I think this is an elegant and efficient way of doing it without the need for quarries or pipelines.

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