Renewable energy sources suffer from three major problems.
The first is the effective hammerlock monopoly that traditional hydrocarbon and coal industries have in many countries.
The second is the fact that wind and solar power have yet to break even with kilowatt costs for electricity generated by traditional power sources, though the gap is closing fast.
Third and perhaps most significant is the fact that renewables have yet to bridge the 24/7 reliability gap – the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun goes down – at which point most utilities fall back on – you guessed it – traditional fossil fuel plants to make up the difference.
Finding a way to bridge the 24/7 reliability gap has accordingly become the holy grail of renewable energy researchers and proponents.
But now, possibly, Canadian researchers have cut the renewable energy Gordian knot.
Researchers based at the University of Calgary have developed a low-temperature process utilizing inexpensive chemical catalysts that break down water (H2O) into its constituent chemical components, oxygen and hydrogen, allowing the hydrogen, a highly flammable element, to be stored as potential, clean burning kinetic energy source that can be burned to produce electricity when needed.
Most interestingly of all, the apparent key catalyst?
Rust, along with a few other choice ingredients.
While catalytic conversion to break down water into its constituent elements has long been known, up to now the substances used are usually made with rare metals, such as iridium and rubidium, which are prohibitively expensive for large-scale commercial purposes. The Calgary researchers discovered they could replace such exotic and expensive components with iron oxide, “rust” to laymen, which combined with other materials, create an effective electrolyte that can be applied onto a surface as an amorphous film.
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In 2012 the U.S. Department of Energy set a target efficiency for electrolyzers of 82 per cent. Rodney Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary laboratory, said that he and his colleagues had measured the efficiency of its material at between 85 and 90 per cent at low output.
Smith and his colleagues have published a paper detailing their findings, “Photochemical Route for Accessing Amorphous Metal Oxide Materials for Water Oxidation Catalysis” in the March 2013 issue of the prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journal, “Science.” The journal’s abstract notes, “Large-scale electrolysis of water for hydrogen generation requires better catalysts to lower the kinetic barriers associated with the oxygen evolution reaction (OER). While most OER catalysts are based on crystalline mixed-metal oxides, high activities can also be achieved with amorphous phases. Methods for producing amorphous materials, however, are not typically amenable to mixed-metal compositions. We demonstrate that a low-temperature process, photochemical metal-organic deposition, can produce amorphous mixed-metal oxide films for OER catalysis. The films contain a homogeneous distribution of metals with compositions that can be accurately controlled. The catalytic properties of amorphous iron oxide prepared with this technique are superior to hematite, while those of a-Fe100-y-zCoyNizOx are comparable to noble metal oxide catalysts currently used in commercial electrolyzers.”
Among the “noble metals” currently used as commercial oxide catalyst electrolyzers are IrO2 - Iridium(IV) oxide - and RuO2, Ruthenium(IV) oxide.
Simply put, the University of Calgary research team has apparently discovered a way to break down the atomic bonds in water binding hydrogen and oxygen at a mere fraction of the cost of current production methods using expensive noble metal oxide catalyst electrolyzers, potentially revolutionizing renewable energy by producing flammable hydrogen gas for power production at a fraction of current production costs.
One of the University of Calgary researchers, Simon Trudel, commented on received scientific wisdom that it was far too expensive to extract hydrogen from water, “There's nothing more gratifying for me than to be able to take the book that everybody follows and just throw it in the trash, because I don’t really care what that book says. You can then store that electricity as hydrogen fuel for as long as you want and you can then reintroduce it into the grid when there's high demand. People have been looking into this but never realized that this method actually was the key to being able to implement this.”
A second member of the University of Calgary research team, Dr. Curtis Berlinguette, associate professor of chemistry, Canada Research Chair in Energy Conversion and director of the university’s Centre for Advanced Solar Materials noted, “Our work represents a critical step for realizing a large-scale, clean energy economy.”
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The team says that their iron oxide-based electrolyzer performs as well or better than expensive catalysts now on the market, and at a cost of 1,000s of times less. The team hopes to have a commercial product in the market by 2014, with a prototype electrolyzer designed to provide a family home's energy needs ready for testing by 2015.
The discovery opens up a potentially infinite clean energy source, as about 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered.
If the tests prove successful, then quite aside from underlining the value of university research to a country’s economy, Canadian University of Calgary researchers have developed a potential game changer in the global drive for renewable energy – which will enrich their institution once the patents generate business interest.
Their research was supported by the university’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy, Alberta Innovates, Mitacs and FireWater Fuel Corp.
Seeking to capitalize on their discovery, the professors have patented the technology and set up a spin-off company, FireWater Fuel Corp. The company’s website notes, “A team of Ph.D. scientists is furthering the technology in a state-of-the-art facility located at the University of Calgary that houses the most sophisticated electrochemical and spectroscopic instrumentation in the world. This expertise combined with a management team experienced in bringing innovative technologies to market provides the ideal combination for creating an entirely new market segment for hydrogen.”
In a potentially massive understatement the company concludes, “The opportunity of the future is here today.”
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com