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A Follow up on the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Breakthrough

By Barry Stevens | Wed, 24 April 2013 20:48 | 4

As a matter of clarification, the technology under discussion generates hydrogen from water. It is not a fuel cell. For this reason, the title “Hydrogen Production Breakthrough” better reflects the technology. The original title “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Breakthrough,” was in error and not intended to mislead or misrepresent the technology.

The hydrogen gas produced from this process functions as a fuel in a combustion process to give off heat or as an energy carrier when injected into a fuel cell to generate electricity. As used by Dr. Phillips in many of his papers, the word “cell” refers to a reaction vessel to produce hydrogen rather than a fuel cell that consumes hydrogen.

Why discuss hydrogen in the first place? There are huge societal and environmental benefits from a hydrogen economy.  Hydrogen is a clean universal fuel that can power almost every vehicle on earth. It can provide heat and energy to every sector of the economy. It can generate electricity and replace all fossil fuels. Finally, no other energy source comes from water and produces only water.

The other great news, hydrogen can be produced from cheap and readily available sources including fossil fuels, biomass or water. Additionally, a variety of process technologies can be used, including chemical, biological, electrolytic, photolytic and thermo-chemical. Each technology is in a different stage of development, and each offers unique opportunities, benefits and challenges. Today, a thermal process using steam to produce hydrogen from natural gas or other light hydrocarbons is the most common.

So why is hydrogen energy in hiding? For the most part, technologies separating hydrogen from other chemical elements like carbon (in fossil fuels) and oxygen (from water) require more energy than the hydrogen so produced provides. Hydrogen was therefore not a viable energy source from an environmental or economic perspective.

The hydrogen energy pathway was further impacted by other challenges in the areas of safety, delivery (pipelines, trucks, barges and fueling stations), storage (tanks for both gases and liquids at ambient and high pressures), conversion (combustion turbines, reciprocating engines and fuel cells), and end-use energy applications (portable power devices, transportation systems, stationary energy generation systems including mission critical, emergency and combined heat and power applications).

If hydrogen is to be, a viable energy alternative of the future, efforts must focus on finding new ways to develop and use hydrogen energy. Now, from a remote area of Oklahoma, Phillips Company, an FDA-registered pharmaceutical manufacturing, product development and licensing company, may have some answers. This is the subject of this discussion.

On January 21, 2013, the Phillips Company sponsored a Catalytic-Carbon Hydrogen-on-Demand Equipment Design Conference (CC-HOD) to demonstrate their technology, which produces hydrogen from water at an unprecedented rate of 30 gallons per minute.  According to Dr. Howard Phillips[1], the developer of this purported breakthrough technology, this may be the first time water in combination with and a low cost metal and a proprietary carbon catalyst generates hydrogen at such a fast rate, see Reference [2].

On April 9, 2013, Dr. Phillips held a second Hydrogen-for-fuel Catalytic-Carbon Hydrogen-on-Demand Equipment Design Conference (CC-HOD). The primary purpose of the conference was to bring together hardware designers and R&D product development professionals to learn about the process designed to generate hydrogen at commercially useful rates, see References [1] to [5].

The developer states the technology provides “a new economical method to generate hydrogen at commercially-useful rates and is the world’s first method that can produce more energy from the burning or combustion of hydrogen than the small amount of energy required to generate the hydrogen.”

According to the following equation, the reaction requires: water; a metallic oxidizing agent such as aluminum pellets to produce heat and hydrogen; a proprietary carbon catalyst to lower the activation energy and accelerate the rate of reaction; a thermal source to initiate the reaction; and a continuous source of low level DC voltage to reduce the formation of a reaction-inhibiting layer of aluminum hydroxide layer on the aluminum pellets.  

2Al + 6[H2O] + CC = CC + 2[Al(OH)3] + 3H2

Aluminium and Water into Hydrogen

The critical and proprietary aspect of the technology is the catalytic carbon named by the developer as Catalytic Carbon (CC). To begin the reaction, an external source of heat is applied to the system. Once hydrogen production begins, the temperature of the system starts to rise. The Catalytic Carbon, which increases the rate of this reaction, simultaneously causes a rapid rise in the temperature of the system. This heat is sufficient to maintain the reaction without an external source of energy.

Related article: Breakthrough Microbattery Charges 1,000 Times Faster than Competing Technology

The catalytic carbon allows for a self-sustaining reaction and therefore eliminates the need for a continuous and costly external source of energy to produce hydrogen. The CC makes possible an energy efficient and potentially low cost method to produce hydrogen.

Furthermore, this reaction is not restricted to expensive high purity water, but rather, uses readily available and lower cost water supplies, including tap water, ocean water, brackish water or dirty water.

Hydrogen Production from water

The developer further indicates this simple, straightforward hydrogen-generation approach may be the only method, worldwide, that:

•    shows a positive energy balance between energy consumed during hydrogen generation and energy produced when combusted; 
•    uses only low cost and friendly materials (carbon, scrap aluminum and water);
•    may possibly eliminate the need for hydrogen storage tanks for some applications;
•    can generate hydrogen, directly from the cell, at any pressure, limited only by the hardware design;
•    produces only two products (hydrogen and aluminum hydroxide);
•    after harvesting the hydrogen, the environmentally safe aluminum hydroxide by-product can be either discarded or recycled;
•    hydrogen can be produced with no critical parameter control, leading to a hydrogen manufacturing process that is said, by manufacturing engineers, to have a wide process latitude, which leads to easy control and therefore low cost for hardware used to produce the hydrogen;
•    scale up the production of hydrogen to provide any hydrogen flow rate (liters per minute), limited only by the hardware design.

A succession of prototype hydrogen generators and more than a dozen samples of aluminum pellets of various particle sizes were on display. A 2004 Buick test vehicle retrofitted with a compact test bed attached to the car’s front bumper was onsite for inspection.  Hydrogen produced by the test bed flowed into the car’s air intake duct, mixed with air and blended with gasoline prior to combustion.

Hydrogen for Transport Fuel

During the walk-around tour (yard, museum of past cell prototypes, porch with the aluminum samples), both assembled and disassembled cells fabricated by Dr. Phillips for development of stationary and mobile systems were also available for inspection. Catalytic Carbon samples were provided for inspection and take home.  The other cell, similar in design to the first, was loaded with Catalytic Carbon. It was ready for mounting on the test vehicle after the addition of water.  Apparently, the developer intended to demonstrate the reaction but was overrule by other attendees more interested in continuing the technical discussions.

Catalytic Carbon

Dr. Phillips asked the conference attendees to vote on whether they wanted to see a demonstration of the test vehicle and/or the fixed-location prototype cell for higher-volume production of hydrogen at higher rates (gallons per minute). While the author voted yes, majority ruled and neither the prototypes nor the car operated during the conference.

For the most part, the conference included discussions of the chemical, material, process and performance aspects of the technology. Phillips Company also identified and published other sources of aluminum; see Reference [1].

Related article: How Long Should a Lithium Ion Battery Survive in an EV?

According to Dr. Phillips, “it makes sense to use hydrogen generated from this presumably low-cost process as a fuel for electricity power generation plants where water is plentiful and cheap as well as to fuel ships and power coastal regions because the process works well for producing hydrogen from sea water.”

Prototype generators having a maximum water capacity of 5 gallons:
•    produced hydrogen at flow rates up to 30 gallons per minute (113.5 lpm);
•    produced a gaseous mixture containing 93 percent hydrogen and what is believed to be 7 percent water vapor/air;
•    operated efficiency through the use of Phillips’ proprietary carbon catalyst and 30 micron aluminum pellets (high surface to volume ratio);
•    produced aluminum hydroxide as the only reaction byproduct;
•    produced hydrogen from untreated tap and sea water; neither distilled water nor other forms of high quality water were required;
•    approached peak efficiency at ~180 degree F (~82 degree C), in water, at 1 ATM;
•    operated with a continuous low-level electricity input between 3 – 12 Volts DC to impede the formation of aluminum hydroxide coating on the underlying aluminum pellets, which inhibits the chemical reaction and hydrogen production (Note; according to the developer, mechanical burnishing can also be used to remove the aluminum hydroxide layer from the aluminum pellets);
•    scalable and independent of input energy.

The last factor is important, in comparison to other hydrogen production processes such as thermoforming and electrolysis. Electrolysis and thermoforming require the input power to vary with production rate. Electrolysis can produce hydrogen from water; to double the hydrogen production rate the input electrical power must also double.

General Process and Performance characteristics:
•    The proprietary carbon catalyst is introduced into a vessel containing a mixture of water and aluminum pellets.
•    The reaction between aluminum and water is exothermic but requires an external heat source to initiate the reaction and bring it to ~180 degree F.
•    Once the reaction reaches ~180 degree F, the external source of heat used to reach that temperate is no longer required.
•    The process works at temperatures higher or slightly lower than the optimum temperature of ~180 degree F (in general, the higher the reaction temperature, the higher the production rate of hydrogen);
•    Aluminum hydroxide is a relatively safe material and only slightly hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), eye contact (irritant), ingestion, or inhalation;
•    Aluminum pellets as large as 200 microns produce hydrogen but at a much slower rate than the 30-micron aluminum, i.e., this process of hydrogen generation relies on surface interactions, which is facilitated by smaller particles that have higher surface-to-volume ratios than larger particles;
•    The technology lends itself to a batch rather than continuous process of hydrogen generation. However, one attendee described plans to build a continuous-feed process that introduces aluminum and water, into the reaction cell, in response to the demand for hydrogen.

The rate of consumption of aluminum depends on the rate of hydrogen generation. This is an important consideration when scaling-up to produce larger quantities of hydrogen. The consumption of aluminum and water and the production of hydrogen and aluminum hydroxide (AH) are as follows:

Aluminum Rate of Consumption

The meeting did not touch upon the economics of the technology. Further process and system studies will enable investigators to make reliable cost estimates in terms of dollars per mcf (thousand cubic feet) of hydrogen gas.

In closing, the technology is a method to produce hydrogen only and is not a method to produce electricity.  It is therefore not a fuel cell. The hydrogen could however be fed into a hydrogen fuel cell to produce electricity. At this time, the developer has not conducted any such tests with a fuel cell.  

The technology is still in the research stage. Taking the technology to the next step is outside the scope of the developer who is interested in licensing the rights to purchase, use and/or manufacture, the carbon catalyst. The developer has filed several provisional and patent applications involving the carbon catalyst with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). At this time, No patents have been issued by the USPTO.

Whether the technology is the Holy Grail of cheap hydrogen remains unanswered. The lack of a hydrogen infrastructure and reliable low-cost fuel cells presents additional challenges to broad market acceptance. Running the transportation sector on hydrogen in lieu of environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels is a great vision but somewhat impractical today.

Should the technology prove out, stationary applications that use combustible fuels might make the most sense in the near future? Paradigm shifts are difficult. 

By. Barry Stevens

Leave a comment

  • Mark chambers on April 25 2013 said:
    The tests seem to be working until you examine the life span of the vehicle using this type of fuel. The replacement rate cost of the motor increases until the overall cost per mile exceeds the per mile costs of a gas engine.
  • Mark Jacobs on April 25 2013 said:
    Found some interesting hydrogen production facilities that are combining municipal wastewater treatment plants and fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams electricity, hydrogen and heat... Very impressive in my opinion.



    "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world's first"
    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315

    "It is here today and it is deployable today," said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.


    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America
    http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2012/october/28-mw-fuel-cell-using-biogas-now-operating-largest-ppa-of-its-kind-in-north-america



    Microsoft Backs Away From Grid
    http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2012/11/20/microsoft-backs-away-slowly-from-the-grid/
  • JJ on May 09 2013 said:
    The Aluminum is the fuel !

    This article and the underlying website of Phillips certainly catch the eye, but little attention seems to be paid to sustainability of the Aluminum consumption. To make a certain mass flow of hydrogen, as per the figures stated, they need a mass flow of Aluminum which is 9 times higher. A lot more energy goes into making all that Aluminum (from ore) than what you get back in terms of hydrogen combustion energy.

    This process may still have some unique advantages and valid applications, but to call it "the world’s first method that can produce more energy from the burning or combustion of hydrogen than the small amount of energy required to generate the hydrogen" seems misleading...
  • David Asirvatham on August 02 2013 said:
    I am building a PEMFC and drive it with tap water to produce hydrogen for it.

    Are aluminium pellets and a DC current(up to 3V)are the best way to produce the hydrogen from my tap water in this PEMFC?

    If so can you please convince me why this is should be so before I decide to buy the aluminium pellets?

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