Thursday, July 9, 2009

Can Urine Rescue Hydrogen-Powered Cars?

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland
Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland
It's been a rough couple of years for cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. As the drums beat louder for electric cars--the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Nissan's upcoming EV, and more--the hydrogen chorus is waning.

But perhaps there's hope. And perhaps it's as close as your nearest urinal. Or, more politely, your local sewage treatment facility.

Let us explain. One of the problems with hydrogen is that while it's prolific in nature, hydrogen molecules aren't floating around loose.

It takes a lot of energy to split hydrogen out from the other atoms to which it binds, either in natural gas or water. Which means energy analysts are skeptical about the overall energy balance of cars fueled by hydrogen.

Now, as Ariel Schwartz of Fast Company reports, Ohio University researcher Geraldine Botte has come up with a nickel-based electrode to oxidize (NH2)2CO, otherwise known as urea, the major component of animal urine.

Because urea's four hydrogen atoms are less tightly bound to nitrogen than the hydrogen bound to oxygen in water molecules, it takes less energy to break them apart: Just 0.37 Volts need to be applied across the cell, against the 1.23 Volts needed to break down water.

This means the energy balance of urea-derived hydrogen could be considerably better from start to finish than projections for other so-called pathways for obtaining the highly combustible gas.

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