Will Latest Lab Discovery Revive Hydrogen Economy, and Reduce Reliance on Foreign Oil?
Remember the hydrogen economy? It was only a decade and some odd years ago that we were ringing the death knell of fossil fuels, and saying that it wouldn't be long until everything would run on hydrogen fuel cells. Our cars, our motorcycles, and even our planes and construction equipment could use the fuel of the future, putting out no emissions, and driving around on clean energy.
Of course, if you look around, that hasn't happened. Most of us still drive cars that run on gasoline. We still import huge amounts of oil, and 75 percent of that oil is used in our transportation industry. While there are electric cars, and the number of people using them is growing every year, what happened to the hydrogen utopia we were promised?
Well, we're still dealing with the same problem now that we had then; making hydrogen is hard. While there have been some advances, such as systems that use solar panels to separate hydrogen and oxygen in the water for energy storage, those solutions are not widespread, or cost-effective. So, while we could use hydrogen energy as a way to cut down on our reliance on foreign oil (and on oil overall), we simply don't have a cheap, simple way to make the hydrogen we would need for the fuel to replace gasoline. Or do we?
What Has The Army Cooked Up This Time?
According to New Scientist, researchers in a U.S. Army laboratory made an unusual discovery this past January. They were testing a high-strength alloy made mostly with aluminum and poured water over it. Generally, when exposed to water, the top layer of aluminum quickly oxidizes, forming a protective barrier. This alloy, though, bubbled and reacted, releasing hydrogen.
Now, as a solution for a powerful alloy, that's not a very useful discovery. As a solution for creating hydrogen quickly, and easily, it just might be an answer to the problem that's been stalling the hydrogen economy for decades.
While the process is still being tested in the lab and has thus far created enough energy to small power devices like remote-controlled tanks, it shows lots of promise. Scientists are conservative in their estimates, but if this process can be scaled-up and made affordable, it would give us the ability to create hydrogen on-demand pretty much anywhere you could combine this aluminum alloy and water.
That is a promise that's got legs, and a lot of people are paying very close attention.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
It's entirely possible that, if this solutions works, that we could take scrap aluminum, recycle it, and turn it into a major component of a new fuel. However, while replacing the gasoline in our fuel pumps is an important goal financially and environmentally, it is only the tip of the ice berg when it comes to what this discovery could do, at least in theory.
For example, it might be possible to build spy planes from airplane aluminum that will make one-way trips over target zones and then cannibalize themselves, so there's nothing left when they drop over hostile territory. It would be possible to 3D-print fuel onto sheets, and to haul those sheets over-the-road to remote locations with relative ease. This would make them a great asset for disaster response and relief, as well as for the military who often have to traverse hostile terrain where the only resources are the ones they bring with them. Given how common aluminum is as a resource, it's also possible that recycling efforts would step-up, allowing for a truly green fuel to localize supply, and enable us to produce our fuel within our borders.
Photo by David Cohen