Feeds

back to article Boffins boost fuel-cell future with 'nanowire forest'

Researchers at a California university have developed a nanowire-based method to efficiently harvest hydrogen for fuel cells without the need for electricity, which is commonly generated by greenhouse-gas producing fossil fuels or nuclear reactors with their problematic waste. "This is a clean way to generate clean fuel," said …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.
Silver badge
Thumb Up

"With this structure, we have enhanced, by at least 400,000 times......................,

..........................the surface area for chemical reactions,”

That is very bloody impressive and of course vital for the efficiency of the structure. If in the future they can actually generate hydrocarbons without exploiting a finite resource (oil) then the chemical industry would (might) be utterly transformed. Apart from anything else the energy and resource costs associated with the mass production of basic solvents would be whole different ball game given that neither oil nor (one assumes) the "cracking" process (very dirty and energy expensive) would be involved.

11
0
Anonymous Coward

yes but

While the idea could be ground breaking.....

How much energy does it take to produce the hardware, eg nano wires, then actually harvest the hydrogen?

Just like the Toyota Prius, the cost of producing the car, especially the batteries far outweighs the Eco and fuel savings.

1
13
Silver badge

Re: yes but

I think you'll probably find that almost any prototype produces less energy than the prototype generates/saves. If caveman had had the sense to efficiently use solar power rather than the land and resource hungry wood burned in grossly inefficient open fires I'm sure you would be in good company.

4
2
Silver badge

Re: yes but

Rather a pedantic reply to a valid point.

At what point does it become viable?

If it costs more to produce than its benefits?

3
3
Facepalm

Re: yes but

Never mind how much it costs to make this device, why waste all that money on paying scientists to research a technology that's not needed? After all, El Reg have told us often enough that AGW is a scam, and here's another example of scientists getting filthy rich out of it.

Meanwhile, those Marxists at the New Scientist would have us believe that "Humanity's greenhouse gas emissions may be acidifying the oceans at a faster rate than at any time in the last 300 million years. The sheer speed of change means we do not know how severe the consequences will be.". (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21534-oceans-acidifying-at-unprecedented-speed.html)

Scientists, pah - what do they know!

12
6
Silver badge
Stop

Re: Re: yes but

"......New Scientist would have us believe that "Humanity's greenhouse gas emissions may be acidifying the oceans"....." Well, seeing as all human C02 emmissions make up a tiny 2% compared to those of nature herself, I'd have to guess that someone at New Scientist was looking for a scarey headline to sell some advertising space.

4
14
Devil

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

Spoken like a true neo-classical economist - know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

If science were left to the economists, we would not have even got to the "banging rocks together" stage. (Pre-stone age scenario: "Where's the value in that? Can you show positively what benefits 'banging things together' brings to the swinging through trees and eating fruit before we waste time on such frivolous research when you could instead be scratching through my fur and removing my lice.")

Let the scientists get on with their stuff, finding new and interesting discoveries.

Let the technologists get on with their stuff, finding out new and interesting ways that the discoveries can actually be applied to the real world.

Let the developers do their stuff, finding ways on incrementally improving those discoveries, bringing the price down so that more people can benefit.

Let the economists do their stuff, finding ways to .. to... um, what the fuck do economists do anyway apart from completely bollox up the world economy through their stupidity and greed? Actually, let's *not* let the economists do their stuff - we will probably end up with a better planet.

33
0
Silver badge

Re: yes but

The oceans are alkaline and that alkalinity has reduced ever so slightly in some areas. That is not, in any way, "acidifying".

So yes, New Scientist is talking out of its arse. Again.

7
17
Silver badge

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

This isn't about cost in the financial sense though it has a bearing.

Huge investment must have a return, either monetary or benefit in kind such as environment.

Science is littered with great ideas that have no value or no application.

Just like the Prius mentioned, you might feel amid and superior driving one but consider the cost of making it, which far out strips any Eco benefit.

1
5
Silver badge

Re: yes but

'The oceans are alkaline and that alkalinity has reduced ever so slightly in some areas. That is not, in any way, "acidifying".'

Yes, it is. Look it up*. But this is only 'playing with words'. Taken in its context, what this 'acidification' -or 'neutralization', to have it your way - means is that the fine PH balance on which many sea organisms depend is being destroyed. It also affects other factors, such as the abiloity of the oceans to store CO2 and CH4. The consequences of this are potentially catastrophic.

15
1
Devil

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

"...investment must have a return...", "Science is littered with great ideas that have no value or no application".

OK smart-arse - who knows IN ADVANCE of the science being done, and the technologists bringing the results into the practical realm WHICH science produces simply interesting results, and which brings the "monetary bacon" (hmmMMMmmm, bacon!). If you go the route of incremental improvements on already known processes (low risk financially), you will never achieve breakthroughs (high risk financially - but world-changing if something genuinely new is found).

How long was electricity known about as a "well, isn't that a weird little thing" before the commercial and large scale applications were found? Similarly, lasers. Two pretty major items that were originally just curiosities for decades until someone twigged that they may have a use somewhere.

If you base your decisions purely on low risk evolution of existing technology, then humanity will be doomed to ultimate stagnation. A world run by economists and bankers is a world devoid of vision and curiosity. I don't know about you, but that is a vision of hell to me.

16
1
Silver badge

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

Smart arse?

I was just pointing something out, giving an opinion, yet you suddenly start pontificating.

I understand the need for invention, but to be realistic there has to be and end result that is of benefit. Invention for inventions sake goes nowhere.

If it take 20 tonnes of coal or 1000 cubic metres of gas to produce 1 cubic metre of hydrogen then they would be on to a loser.

Again I refer you to the batteries in the Prius. Smug Holywood types love them, but the over all cost to the environment is huge. You'd have less effect on the environment driving a Ferrari to work every day.

0
7
Anonymous Coward

Re: yes but

"The consequences of this are potentially catastrophic."

And atomic bombs could potentially ignite the atmosphere, oh wait.....

History is riddled with scaremongers who now look idiotic and more than a little manipulative.

6
3
Devil

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

OK, maybe I did wander over the edge when I said "smart arse" and I apologise, but the point still stands.

"I understand the need for invention, but to be realistic there has to be and end result that is of benefit. Invention for inventions sake goes nowhere." This clearly shows that you do not understand the need for invention. As shown in previous examples (electricity and lasers), the original inventions had zero known benefits until decades after the discoveries.

"If it take 20 tonnes of coal or 1000 cubic metres of gas to produce 1 cubic metre of hydrogen then they would be on to a loser." Well, yes. Obviously. Nice strawman there, as the device in the article is ultimately designed to use artificial photosynthesis to get us out of the problems associated with eventually running out of coal or (natural) gas. Whether it will be successful or not, only time and research (you know, that scientific thing that some people do with no guarantees for success, only accumulation of knowledge) will tell.

"Again I refer you to the batteries in the Prius." Um, what? Hate to admit this, but this suggests we may be arguing at cross purposes, as I do not see the link with the points I am trying to make. That marketers have managed to present a "green" image on a vehicle does not invalidate the science, and yes, the overall impact of mining/manufacture/recycling/disposal needs to be looked at. Also sustainability. Ultimately, a battery-powered car still has the potential to keep working as electricity can be sourced a number of ways that do not involve fossil fuels. The Ferrari will have problems when oil runs out - unless the research in the article (or some other lab-work) manages to overcome obstacles and become fully working and scalable technology. Yay, go science!

6
0
Silver badge

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

So,we agree!

0
1
Silver badge

Re: yes but - downvote

ok downvotedmatt,

now lets see what he actually said.....

yup still an asshat

5
1
Silver badge
Trollface

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

and let some pratt from cupertino come along, patent it, and try and stop us all using it :-)

1
1
Silver badge

Re: yes but

scalar quantity:

if the potential of hydrogen is changing, and it's not diminishing, then the substance is becoming more acidic.

dont really matter where it was to start with

6
1
Silver badge

Re: yes but (@ Norfolk 'n' Goode )

"And atomic bombs could potentially ignite the atmosphere, oh wait....."

Nowadays physicists believe this is impossible, at least with the kind of atomic bombs available. On the other hand most biologists and oceanologists -the kind of people you should trust in these subjects- believe that the acidification of the sea will bring dire consequences. Yes, you'll probably be able to find dissenting voices in the scientific community, even some dissenting voices who aren't being paid by some industry cartel or another. But the vast majority of biologists and oceanologists would agree with what I wrote in my comment. I'm perfectly aware that this scientific consensus could be proved wrong -we're discussing science here, not religion- but usually following the actual scientific consensus is the best way to go for those of us who are not experts in the areas discussed. Otherwise we may end up believing some quack who says that vaccines are bad for children... oh wait...

Not being an expert in the area myself, the only thing I can do is check this consensus against what I've read previously on this and other related subjects. And in this case it seems to fit nicely.

There is also a small fallacy in your comment, when you try to equate the 'minority opinion' about the a-bombs igniting the atmosphere with the actual consensus on the subject of sea acidification.

11
1
Silver badge
Happy

@AC 10th March 2012 06:58 GMT:......Re: "yes but"

"How much energy does it take to produce the hardware, eg nano wires, then actually harvest the hydrogen?"

I was primarily thinking of the fascinating prospect that they might be able to produce short-chain hydrocarbons - hence my reference to basic solvents. If that became possible and even better the smaller hetero atom molecules then the effects could be very far-reaching indeed in the chemicals industry. The savings in energy consumption and pollution costs would be enormous and would, if the process were driven by sunlight, certainly repay the development, production and running costs. Just imagine if pentane, hexane, heptane and perhaps toluene (the simplest mono-substituted six-member aromatic ring) could be produced by this analogue of a biological system. Furthermore if the smaller hetero atomic molecules (ie containing at least one other atom other than carbon and hydrogen) were possible giving us (perhaps) the four smallest alcohols (methanol, ethanol, propanol and butanol) or perhaps even such solvents as tetrahydrafuran and dioxane then the effects would be utterly transformative. If such artificial sun-driven analogues of biological production systems became realizable the positive effects throughout industrial production on a world-wide basis would be so huge that it is not possible to do them justice in a small posting such as this.

8
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

Oh god, not another one who actually thinks that Dust To Dust was a piece of science.

0
0
Mushroom

Re: yes but

"The oceans are alkaline and that alkalinity has reduced ever so slightly in some areas. That is not, in any way, "acidifying".

So yes, New Scientist is talking out of its arse. Again."

The pH has reduced. No matter where you start, that is "acidification". Becoming less alkaline is the same thing as becoming more acidic...

Mean ocean pH has decreased by about 0.1 in the last hundred years or so. That may sound like a small amount, until you remember that pH is a logarithmic scale and that actually represents a change of 30%. This is a rate of change 100 times faster than anything seen in the last 20 million years.

5
1
Mushroom

Re: yes but

"Well, seeing as all human C02 emmissions make up a tiny 2% compared to those of nature herself,..."

This is one of the more ridiculous denier talking points. Those "natural" CO2 emissions to which human emissions are being compared are not *net*. Sure, there are natural processes that generate CO2. There are also natural processes that absorb CO2. These two sets of processes have been in equilibrium since before humans were around.

It doesn't really matter how big the human emissions are in comparison to the natural emissions, because there isn't a corresponding "extra" 2% natural absorption suddenly appearing to cancel out the now unaccounted for human emissions.

The net result of all of this is that atmospheric CO2, which has been stable for millions of years, has increased from about 300ppm in the middle of the last century to about 400ppm now. Not only that, but that 100ppm increase only accounts for about half the amount of CO2 emitted by humans; the other half has gone into the oceans, resulting in significant acidification.

There's really no mystery here; we know exactly how much carbon we burn (many people in the oil, gas and coal trading industry care a great deal about tracking this data) and we know where it goes.

9
0
Mushroom

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

LarsG - talking absolute bollocks about the Prius... I presume your one source of information is the daft study that decided a Prius cost more in energy than a Hummer. Unfortunately they made some serious errors such as assuming a Prius would only go 100K miles but a Hummer 400K. Hmm that's realistic. Now those incredibly expensive batteries - Nickel ones, very rare metal indeed (sarcasm) - the 'immensely polluting' Canadian mine Toyota got it from have figures that they bought 0.5% of the mines output at peak. Mostly it went into steel and on the chrome trim of luxury cars. Again for the cost - not got some real figures but the incredibly biased study that said a Hummer was better than the Prius costed recycling them at under $100. Now e-cars with Lithium batteries and you may have a bit of a point given its a truly rare earth and harder to recycle.

I'm sure you believe everything that Jeremy Clarkson says as gospel but why not spend 5 mins on Google checking your 'facts' before you brain fart? So enjoy driving your Ferrari but don't feel as smug when you pass a Prius.

4
1
Silver badge
Boffin

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

"If it take 20 tonnes of coal or 1000 cubic metres of gas to produce 1 cubic metre of hydrogen then"

any scientist worth his/her NaCl would start boffining away on making the nano-forest production more energy-efficient, and as durable as they can get it.

Because once it's made, you only need sunlight. Which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't require fossil fuels or generate greenhouse gases.

1
0
MNB
Boffin

Re: yes but (@Matt Bryant)

but that 2% excess CO2 emission has increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from ~280ppm to ~380ppm. An increase of about 35%.

The CO2 in the atmosphere is in equilibrium with the CO2 dissolved in the oceans. That is a 35% uptick in atmospheric CO2 will eventually lead to a similar uptick in CO2 concentration in the ocean (it's far from saturated in this regard, it's not a fizzy drink yet). However this step is lagging, it takes time for the CO2 concentration of the ocean bulk to even out, quite a lot of it is more than a mile from the surface.

In turn the dissolved CO2 is also in reversible equilibrium (by reaction with water) with carbonic acid (H2O + CO2 <-> H2CO3). Pushing in more CO2 drives the equilibrium over to the H2CO3 side. H2CO3 is acidic (weakly), in that it disassociates into "free protons"* and bicarbonate.

pH is the negative logarithm of "free proton"* concentration... so increasing atmospheric CO2 inevitably leads to the pH of sea water decreasing, that is acidification (by definition, frankly).

* I'm forced to point out at this point that "free protons" do not exist in even very acidic water solutions. Assuming they exist is a gross simplification. The acidic species in aqueous solution is actually H3O+, that is the acidic proton attaches itself to a near by water molecule.

5
0
Anonymous Coward

"The acidic species in aqueous solution is actually H3O+"

A good post and upvote but since you went all boffiny I must point out that even the assumption about the protons attaching itself to a water molecule and forming a H3O+ is a simplification. The reality is closer to H21O10+ or something like that (can't be bothered to look it up, sorry...), each proton is associated with ten or so water molecules on average.

2
0
Boffin

Re: yes but (@LarsG)

"Science is littered with great ideas that have no value or no application."

One of the roles of science is to explore avenues that are ultimately fruitless. Better that is discovered in the science lab than after expensive mistakes are made in the technology or economy. As a biologist I was involved in research that enabled advice to be given to a BigPharma NOT to proceed with a particular gene enhancing drug because it would likely make bowel cancer worse. We don't need another foreseeable mistake like Vioxx.

Also any experiment where the outcome is known is not worth doing by definition. Please oh all seeing one tell me how to tell in advance of an experiment how to absolute tell the outcome without doing it. Then I can give up and take up something fulfilling like landscape gardening or pontificating from ignorance like you are.

3
0
MNB
Boffin

Re: "The acidic species in aqueous solution is actually H3O+"

yep you are pretty much right... although the "proton" is effectively covalently bound to a single water molecule forming H3O+, this is in turn merely hydrogen bonded to an inner circle of three (via the three H's, to form "H9O4+"), and they in turn are H-bonded to another six H2O's, forming as you say a species of formula H21O10+ (no super or sub scripts in plain text, but you get the gist). However the inner three and the outer six are only hydrogen bonded to the inner H3O+ which is by standard convention actually a single molecule, not an aggregation of ten molecules that is only transiently stable; the outer six are so weakly bound they exchange with molecules in the bulk quite rapidly.

Finally most of these arguments are fairly moot as the extra H+ in H3O+ (I know I've simplified again) can hop from one H2O to the next, thereby leading to ion transport speeds in aqueous solution that far exceed what would be expected if something as large as H9O4+ or H21O10+ were trying to move about (this is also true of OH- too).

Still thumbs up for making me remember the rest of it.

2
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: "The acidic species in aqueous solution is actually H3O+"

Thumbs up again for making me remember the point I probably was trying to make originally, namely that in a way the idea of free H+ (hopping from one H2O to the next) is quite close to reality - once you go beyond that things turn out more complicated than just H3O+. But you've now made it clear you understood that.

(Obviously the only important thing is that the original scientifically challenged poster was shut up.)

0
0

While the increase in surface area is very useful for separating water into hydrogen and oxygen, the photosynthesis-like nature of the process makes me feel that they will be released together, and in exactly the right (or wrong) mix to be a potentially dangerous process. Could be great though.

The idea that this might be extended to completely mimic photosynthesis seems, in general, a little strange though:

As there is so little CO2 in the atmosphere that it is the limiting factor in photosynthesis in plants, increasing the surface area isn't going to increase the efficiency unless the process is incredibly bad (compared to plants) in the first place.

Of course there are some special cases that it might make some difference to, like near the exhaust from a fossil fuel power station.

Being able to tweak the process to produce the carbohydrates your are interested in directly rather than having to extract them from the mix that a plant would make seems much more useful.

3
0
Gold badge
Thumb Up

*efficiently* making Hydrogen is good

But turning the atmosphere's excess CO2 into hydrocarbon fuels is *better*.

Otherwise you're stuck with yet another H2 production route.

Which still leaves you with all the *other* problems of H2 distribution and storage.

Thumbs up for the new option and hopes that they will go with the HC route. But remember folks this is v0.1 tech.

No one's fueling their car by tapping off the H2 from from a solar collector for a *very* long time to come.

2
3

I wonder if this research would help the natural gas fuel cell tech

1
0
Silver badge
Thumb Up

@Dave 150

My take on the matter is that this kind of technology is great for anything depending on surface area for the generation of energy and/or useful chemical compounds, as long as the energy cost of creating the nanowires is less than the benefit obtained. Solar cells, hydrogen production, fuel cells, catalysts, ...

Considering the way the efficiency of nanowire creation has been rising in the last decade, I'd bet that these technologies will be very useful in a near future.

4
0
Gold badge
Joke

The *classic* reply to economists "what good is it?" was given by Michael Farady

Politician "so what good is it (electric current in a wire influencing a compass needle)?"

MF "I don't know, but I guess one day you'll tax it."

And b***er me sideways he was absolutely right.

13
1
Megaphone

Let's talk about the process chaps?

This process will use pure water then?

Takes quite a bit of energy to make 100% pure water and keep it that way.

Take sunlight and water with all its life forms and minerals in it and you'll get an algae or bacteria bloom which will clog those nano-tubes in no time flat.

0
2
Anonymous Coward

What's the efficiency of generating hydrogen from water? Maybe it would be better to concentrate on using solar and wind power to make hydrogen instead of wasting it on powering inefficient electrical devices that are often found connected a power grid. Like it is real stupid to power an electric dryer to dry clothes and an electric stove to cook with using solar power.

0
4
Silver badge
Stop

For the AGW sheeple.

<Yawn> OK, just for all the AGW crowd, let's try a little actual science and maths. The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 0.0387% by volume. If it was to increas by "30%" it still only gets to 0.05031, which is still much lower than the levels it has been at many times in the past. AGW bleaters like to focus on the last 100,000 years leading up through the industrial revolution (and it has NOT been static or in equilibrium during that period) as this gives them another nice hockeystick graph known as the Keeling Curve. And we all know how much the AGW crowd love rehashing science and producing misleading hockeystick graphs. The Keeling Curve is an exercise in deceptive mathematical maipulation, using chopped axis and compressed variables in order to get the steep ramp up the AGW sheeple need. Indeed, the levels of C02 have risen and fallen cyclically over millions of years, reaching peaks of over 0.06%, much higher than those bleated by the alarmists.

The other constant bleat from the AGW sheeple is that CO2 is "irreversible", stating that once we have created it by burning fossil fuels we are stuck with it forever. Which neatly ignores the fact that CO2 breakdown is what plants do best seeing as it is the basis of photosynthesis. So, to shut up the sheeple, simply suggest they go plant a few trees, even Cannabis plants if they want to (should keep them doubly quiet).

1
11
Mushroom

"The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 0.0387% by volume. If it was to increas by "30%" it still only gets to 0.05031, which is still much lower than the levels it has been at many times in the past."

Please define "in the past". If you mean tens of millions of years ago, then sure.

"AGW bleaters like to focus on the last 100,000 years leading up through the industrial revolution (and it has NOT been static or in equilibrium during that period) as this gives them another nice hockeystick graph known as the Keeling Curve."

Yes, we do like to focus on the last 100,000 years. You know why? Because agriculture has only existed in that period, and is rather finely tuned to the specific set of conditions existing in the present time. Because London, the East Anglia, and, I don't know, Florida have not been underwater in that period. Because most of the species alive on the planet are finely adapted to their current ecological niches and wouldn't survive a sudden shift back to the climate of the cretaceous period.

You seriously don't think it's a problem that we've moved the needle on atmospheric composition (from 300ppm CO2 to 400ppm) by such an amount that you have to go back before humans existed to find a comparable, and we've done that in only fifty years?

7
2
Silver badge
FAIL

"....Yes, we do like to focus on the last 100,000 years. You know why?...." Beacuse your psedoscience just doesn't stack up otherwise? Beacuse seeing a nice series and peaks and troughs over those millions of years kinda spoils your little alarmist routine?

"....Because most of the species alive on the planet are finely adapted to their current ecological niches and wouldn't survive a sudden shift back to the climate of the cretaceous period....." Really? They seem to have survived quite well the last set of cycles, or did you fail to notice that life didn't disappear from teh Earth when it was at 600ppm.

0
3
Thumb Down

Better than trees?

How much more efficient than a willow or miscanthus plantation does this have to be before it makes sense? Is there any hope that it will be? More efficient than PV with car-battery buffering?

Regardless of technical approach -- from biomass up -- the problem with solar energy is that it has to be physically huge (like 2 or 10% of UK's land area, truly impossible numbers) to make sense in the context of national energy demand. This lovely thing can't change the depressing physics of turning visible quanta into usable energy.

Nor is the limited automotive solar/hydrogen concept a runner. It's kept alive by corporate and personal dreamers who want to stick with combustion engines for cars while still sounding green. This research is brilliant -- just imagine a catalytic substrate built like this -- but solar hydrogen isn't.

1
0

co-operate with nature

Rather than nanowires which have to be manufactured from extracted ores (as pointed out above), how about persuading biology to do it for us? A good use of GM.

0
0
Facepalm

Hmm.. nano forests

I say grow as many as we can, then chop them down and burn them. Steam power for everyone !

1
0
Gold badge
Unhappy

The "tipping point" will be when New Orleans & Miami are *permanently* under water

That's the tipping point in *concern* about AGW, IE when the US *collectively* realizes "OMFG there's a *problem*"

I imagine a fair few bits of uninteresting real estate (to the US that is) will have gone under by then.

Weather it will be too late actually *do* something about it (other than sealing the bottom 10-15 floors of Miami apartment blocks and installing boat docks by their sides) is another matter.

1
1
Silver badge
Facepalm

Re: The "tipping point" will be when New Orleans & Miami are *permanently* under water

So what happens if we actually go into a new ice age rather than AGW? Bet you'll be wishing we had more nuke power stations then!

0
3
Gold badge

Re: The "tipping point" will be when New Orleans & Miami are *permanently* under water

"Bet you'll be wishing we had more nuke power stations then!"

You do know that I'm in favor of increasing the use of nuclear power, right?

0
1
This topic is closed for new posts.