JANUARY 2010 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Personal Hydrogen

Energy is controlled by big companies, many of them monopolies. It’s delivered over wires, in pipes, or on heavy trucks, because it’s too inefficient to deal with on a smaller scale. But this is going to change.

We’re already seeing one part of the change in the growth of batteries. Advanced engineering has reduced the size and power requirements of a wide range of electrical devices. Computers use a tiny fraction of the power that was required by computers of 25 years ago, so they can now run on batteries. Flashlights now run 10 times as long because of improvements in efficiency. Even cars have become efficient enough to run on batteries these days, if you’re willing to pay the high price of such a big battery.

But even if you shrink the power requirements of a device, you still need to get the power somewhere. If you plug in your car to recharge it, you’re still filling up the battery with electricity that’s generated in a huge facility, such as a nuclear power station. At this point, you have little choice. Even if you have a way to generate your own electricity, there hasn’t been an efficient way to store it until you are ready to use it.

Hydrogen has been proposed as a storage medium for energy. The advantages of hydrogen include its chemical simplicity and its complete lack of greenhouse gases. It can also be produced by splitting water molecules, something that happens naturally as part of the process of photosynthesis. If the dynamic of the photosynthesis process could be duplicated, and the separate hydrogen atoms captured, it could represent an answer for solar energy storage.

The first mechanism for this that I’ve heard about is described in a recent paper in Inorganic Chemistry by Daniel G. Nocera, “Chemistry of Personalized Solar Energy.” Nocera proposes the use of cobalt ions to separate the oxygen formed when water is split, so that the hydrogen atoms can be diverted and captured. According to Nocera, this allows water splitting to be done on any scale and with naturally occurring water that contains salt and other minerals.

This suggests a device for capturing sunlight and storing energy that could be built into any solid surface facing the sun. And while it would benefit from precision engineering, it would work reasonably well without it. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this and other possible approaches in the next few years. And it will lead to a world in which utility wires and pipelines, and the companies that operate them, won’t be quite so important.


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