Why Solar: Oceans of fuel waiting to be tapped

April 20, 2010, was the day the offshore drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, suffered a blowout. Defined as the uncontrolled release of hydrocarbon into the environment, this tragedy extracted a huge cost both in human life, with eleven souls lost, and miles of coast and gulf waters polluted.

This event brought to light the dangers, and technologies, the world has had to resort to in the pursuit of the energy that drives our modern civilization. Perils aside if you were to ask the person next to you if they were willing to give up heating their home, their vehicle, their flights to southern vacation destinations, you would likely find the answer to be a resounding no.

The technology we currently employ for such off shore facilities has lent its self to an idea being entertained by scientists at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York. With a new tack on an old method, they have addressed some of the major shortcomings of electrolyzing water into its component parts of oxygen and hydrogen. Currently electrolysers split water using membranes to separate the two gases produced, and very pure water is required. These requisites either restrict operating life or substantially add to maintenance costs.

The researcher’s modifications to this process allow their electrolyser to produce hydrogen from water without using membranes. Titanium mesh electrodes, coated with platinum on one side, are floated in unpurified water, such as tap-water, or the ultimate goal, seawater. As electricity is provided to the negative electrode, hydrogen is produced forming bubbles which then detach and float into a collector: from there it is then pumped to storage. The positive electrode produces oxygen bubbles which are collected and simply released to the atmosphere. In operation the modified electrolyser generates

hydrogen at 99% purity. The hydrogen produced using the floating electrolyser would then be transported back to land with tankers designed for the purpose.

Contributing chemical engineer Daniel Esposito pointed out “About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water—why not use some of that space to harvest energy?” With technology already in place for floating installations he suggests the results of their discovery could be mounted on floating offshore platforms or “solar fuel rigs”; installations which would produce hydrogen on a commercial scale, for worldwide supply.

Hydrogen is an effective means of energy storage when created with wind or solar generated electricity. Versatile, hydrogen can be used for heating or re- generation of electricity, with engines, or fuel cells. It can also be converted into liquid forms of hydrocarbon by mixing it with carbon dioxide scrubbed from the atmosphere. This “fill in” technology would allow time for the adoption of alternate technologies while conventional infrastructure is modified for hydrogen.

Scalability is another advantage of this technology, and with water quality not being an issue, remote areas near a lake or slough could possibly benefit by systems which produce stored energy for heat and electricity. Any Canadian entrepreneurs interested?

Lorne Oja can be reached at lorne@solartechnical.ca

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