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Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Hope for Hydrogen as a Fuel?

Ages ago I posted something about hydrogen, with the basic point being made that hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy carrier and that the fundamental problem with the idea of using hydrogen to power cars etc is that you have to put more energy into making it than you can get out of burning it.

Today though, there is some positive news. Researchers have been able to harness natural microbial action (ie bacteria which munch on organic matter and fart hydrogen instead of methane) and give the process a major efficiency boost with the addition of a small amount of electricity. The result was that the hydrogen released carried between two and six times as much energy as the electricity they had to put in to the system. (The rest of the energy was originally in the organic matter, captured from the Sun.)

At first glance this is potentially a great result, especially compared with biofuels as we know them today which apparently consume more fuel in their production than they provide as the end product. Microbes could munch on all kinds of organic waste and release energy-carrying hydrogen for us to utilise. The process has a much higher efficiency, potentially transforming what was originally solar energy into something we can use in cars.

Next steps: make the process a lot faster. At the moment it's too slow to be useful on any practical scale. But at least it's some positive news.

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