1967 discovery at IBM may be about to pay off

1967 discovery at IBM may be about to pay off

Summary: The original discovery was made forty years ago by a young researcher at IBM. Now he's leading a team of researchers at Purdue who seem to be on the brink of an energy wonderland.


woodall-hydro.jpg The original discovery was made forty years ago by a young researcher at IBM. Now he's leading a team of researchers at Purdue who seem to be on the brink of an energy wonderland. Easy-to-produce hydrogen. Produced on site, on demand. Cheaply.

OK, so here's the outline. In 1967, Jerry Woodall was at IBM working on new semiconductors. It was then he discovered an alloy of aluminum and gallium could react with water to release pure hydrogen. The only by-product is aluminum oxide which can easily turned back into oxygen and aluminum. Meanwhile, burning hydrogen produces water as a by-product. So if cars ran on hydrogen we'd need drainage systems improved but wouldn't have to worrry much about greenhouse gases from autos.

Now Woodall and two of his associates at Purdue are preparing to publish a paper on their improved aluminum/gallium alloy process. That paper will come out at an energy nanotech conference, September 7.

You can find a summary of their paper here.

Some points from Woodall and his group: aluminum is fairly abundant. It's main source is the mineral bauxite. Nature must be laughing--in the past a major, low value by-product of aluminum extraction has been...gallium. In this process the gallium is simply a catalyst and is not used up. The aluminum is oxidized, releasing the hydrogen, on the spot. Woodall & Co. say this tech can be used in fairly small engines and generators, not requiring huge infrastructure investment. You would need readly available water, of course.

Especially attractive are marine uses, the water supply is at hand. No need for hauling or storing water as fuel.

So the alchemists never found the stone to turn lead into gold. But if they really turn water into cheap hydrogen, that's getting pretty close. Woodall estimates internal combustion uses of hydrogen produced with his discovery could make car travel less than half as expensive as it is at today's petroleum prices.

The picture above: Purdue researchers demonstrate their method for producing hydrogen by adding water to an alloy of aluminum and gallium. The hydrogen could run an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell. The reaction was discovered by Jerry Woodall, center, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering. Charles Allen, holding test tube, and Jeffrey Ziebarth, both doctoral students in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are working with Woodall to perfect the process. (Purdue News Service file photo/David Umberger)

Topic: IBM

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  • One little, one big

    [i]So if cars ran on hydrogen we?d need drainage systems improved but wouldn?t have to worrry much about greenhouse gases from autos.[/i]

    Actually, water vapor is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It just doesn't need photosynthesis to remove it from the atmosphere.

    The larger problem is that:

    [i]The only by-product is aluminum oxide which can easily turned back into oxygen and aluminum.[/i]

    For some value of, "readily." Alumina is reduced to aluminum by electrolysis after dissolving it in cryolite (Na3AlF6) at just under 1000C. That is [b]not[/b] a process that you want to run on every corner -- it's heavy industry. It's also quite energy-inefficient, so the primary power sources will have to be scaled up. Maybe burn more coal?

    The logistics of moving megatonnes of highly reactive anhydrous gallium aluminide around the country from the manufacturer to the consumer, recovering it, and returning to the manufacturer for reprocessing is, need we say, not going to be cheap.

    Somehow, it seems more practical to convert water to hydrogen using electricity locally without shipping highly reactive carriers around in bulk.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • I wondered the same things

      I didn't follow the link to the research paper so I don't know if the economics of this are covered but I bet you a nickel that they are not.
    • Don't be surprised

      Pretty much every green solution suffers similar issues because environmentalists, being good socialists utopians, fail to realize that a free market system tends to develop the best and most efficient solutions to any given problem.

      There's a reason why automobiles use internal combustion engines running off of gasoline, and no it isn't because of evil conspiracies by auto makers and oil companies.
  • Greeners Eat My Dust

    While Bono and Sienna Miller have been asking us to wear burlap bags and cook using old pieces of styrofoam, corporate eggheads have been 21st century chemistry

    Energy from aluminum blows by flex fuel, hybrids and battery cars.
  • Now, from the consumer's point of view

    Okay, now you have to fill your tank with small Al/Ga pellets (or dust), which have a density somewhere above four times that of gasoline (about 3.3 g/mL vs 0.7 g/mL), and then have a separate tank for your water. The car then weighs significantly more than it would with gas in the tank, lowering your fuel mileage.

    Then, the water is turned into H2 (light, which leaves) and O2- (heavy, which makes Al2O3), and your gas tank stays about the same weight as it was when you started, unlike the gasoline tank. More drop in mileage.

    Then, you have to get rid of your pellets/dust somehow, and presumably the "fuel station" needs to store it for recycling. Transportaion to the recycling plant has to be taken into account.

    And lastly, the numbers given in the summary you linked to compared the WHOLESALE cost of aluminum to the RETAIL cost of gasoline (this summer, which is about $1 higher than it is now). Apples to apples, folks.

    Sorry, I expect more out of a professor at Purdue than this (maybe it's because he's a EE, not a chemist ;) ).
  • Very Expensive Hydrogen

    As a chemist, I know dozens of ways to make hydrogen from water. My favorite is to throw sodium or potassium metal into water, and wait for the evolved H2 to ignite and put on quite a show. OK, fun, but not safe! We can move up to lithium that gives off hydrogen, but doesn't usually self-ignite. Or try calcium metal that slowly evolves H2. All too exotic? OK, how about magnesium metal? We need hot water, but we will get hydrogen. So what's wrong with all of these, including the Purdue Al-Ga alloy? None of these hydrogen-generating metals occur naturally. You have to spend a lot of energy to "win" them from their ores. So using aluminum alloys for H2 production is a loser; you will actually waste energy. And if you really want to go the "metal hydrolysis" route, use magnesium. Still bent on aluminum? Never mind the exotic alloy, just add a pinch of lye (sodium hydroxide) to the water. This is all high school chemistry.