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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Most industrial hydrogen producers currently make the gas by heating methane and water to 815 degrees Celsius and causing a reaction.

A new electrode for cutting the price of making hydrogen

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it's a royal pain to make.

Most industrial hydrogen producers currently make the gas by heating methane and water to 815 degrees Celsius and causing a reaction. Unfortunately, this process generates 9.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilo of hydrogen, so it's not environmentally friendly or cheap.

Other companies like Signa Chemistry have come out with chemical catalysts that can strip hydrogen from water.

Then there is electrolysis, which involves cracking water molecules with electricity. Electrolysis doesn't produce any greenhouse gases or chemical residues so it's the most environmentally friendly. It's also expensive and time consuming. QuantumSphere says it has a way around this problem.

It has devised an iron-nickel power for coating an electrode that speeds up the electrolysis process, according to CEO Kevin Maloney. It's a classic nano play. Coating a surface with small, independent particles increases the reactive surface area, which means more simultaneous reactions between molecules. Quantum's Stingray electrodes have more than 2,000 times more catalytic surface area than standard electrodes coated with standard sized particles, he said.

The Stingray can produce 2.4 kilograms of hydrogen in 25 minutes. Standard electrodes can take hours or days, he said. As a result, the Stingray can produce hydrogen at $2.50 to $9 a kilo, not including subisidies. That's in the range that excites the Department of Energy.

No, the hydrogen economy doesn't exist yet. But researchers around the globe continue to ponder ways to produce, store and transport the stuff cheaply. Some car makers still maintain that hydrogen cars will come out within a decade or so.

A spin-out from Caltech, QuantumSphere also makes particles for rocket engines and other industrial applications. We wrote about them a few years ago here.

Nanoparticles for energy, explosions
Nanotechnology specialist QuantumSphere has developed technology that eventually could help heat homes--or blow them up.

The San Diego-based start-up has created a manufacturing process for producing small, stable metallic particles that consist of only a few atoms. By reducing the number of atoms per particle, manufacturers can better exploit the inherent properties of these elements in chemical reactions.

With aluminum, that means more powerful explosions. Munitions makers will likely be able to create aerial bombs that are smaller and lighter, but more powerful than current weapons. A rocket with nanoaluminum-enhanced fuel will reach a target velocity faster.

"It will accelerate to Mach 8 because of the higher burn rate," said Douglas Carpenter, chief scientific officer and co-founder of QuantumSphere. "If you can shoot someone down before they can shoot you, that is good."

By contrast, nanonickel could be used to replace platinum and other fairly expensive elements in catalytic converters and fuel cells. This shift could lead to cheaper hydrogen fuel cells for homes and cars in the growing alternative-energy market. Some Japanese manufacturers will come out with hydrogen fuel systems for homes in the first quarter of next year. Both metals can also be used in new types of coatings.

"Nickel is pretty much a garden-variety material," said QuantumSphere CEO Kevin Maloney. "It is a direct replacement for platinum."

NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and Ballard Power Systems, among others, are already customers.

As space-age as it sounds, nanotechnology--the science of making products out of components or molecules that measure less than 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter)--has begun to sneak into the general market. Pants, bicycle components and car parts sprinkled with specialized nanoparticles have already, or soon will, come out. Socks with silver nanoparticles aim to prevent foot odor by killing bacteria.

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