Opening to New Hydrogen Energy Technologies
Prepared for the World Congress for a Hydrogen Economy
© Brian O'Leary, Ph.D., November 2001
Abstract: When we talk about a hydrogen economy, we generally refer to the generation of energy from the combustion of hydrogen or from its conversion to electricity through fuel cells. These approaches have been with us for well over a century and have wide appeal because of their nonpolluting nature and cost-effective operations in the long run, when compared to a fossil fuel economy. But often missing from the discussion are more advanced technologies which could make a hydrogen economy all the more appealing and avoid the large expense of creating energy intensive hydrogen production facilities and infrastructure.
B a s i c a l l y, the traditional hydrogen economy involves the exothermic reaction between hydrogen fuel and oxygen in the atmosphere. This chemistry is well understood. But two other approaches now being researched are much more promising and provide far greater amounts of energy.
One is the hydrogen gas cell and hydrogen plasma cell technologies of Dr. Randell Mills of BlackLight Power Incorporated. Early research indicates that, when hydrogen gas is heated in the presence of certain catalysts, the hydrogen atom appears to "shrink" to a state lower than the normal ground state. The result is a novel chemical state of hydrogen called a hydrino, and the release of energy approximately 100 times that of normal hydrogen combustion.
The second advanced technology concerns the ability for hydrogen to electrochemically, ultrasonicly or otherwise transmute into helium in a fusion reaction at room temperature, with the release of hundreds of thousands times greater energy than normal hydrogen combustion. Radioactivity is negligible. This process is often called "cold fusion" or "low energy nuclear reactions". It was first discovered in 1989 by Drs. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in an experiment using palladium cathodes in a solution containing heavy water. These experiments have been replicated many times and comprise an impressive scientific literature.
This paper will describe how a hydrogen economy could be enhanced by either or both of these important research developments. The result could become what the Japanese call "new hydrogen energy", where ordinary water becomes the clean-burning fuel of choice.
In conferences such as this, we see a growing consensus that humanity cannot continue to go on with a fossil fuel economy. Dwindling supplies and the great pollution caused by burning oil, coal and natural gas necessitate a major overhaul of our energy systems. Hydrogen is clearly the energy carrier of choice because it is clean, safe, feasible, inexhaustible, and cost-effective in the long run.
The sciences of hydrogen combustion and hydrogen fuel cells are well-known and have been with us for a very long time. Henry Cavandish discovered hydrogen in 1766 by pouring acid on iron and collecting the bubbles it gave off. The gas in the bubbles was found to be combustible, later identified as hydrogen. In 1820, Reverend W. Cecil built an internal combustion engine fueled by hydrogen. Later in the 1800s and during the 1900s, hydrogen engines became increasingly refined to the point that they have become operationally competitive with petroleum-fueled internal combustion engines. 1 Ironically, the use of hydrogen fuels predated the use of oil, which later took over with the invention of the carburator and because of ease of production, storage and fueling.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also playing an increasing role in electrical power generation for transportation and buildings. Sir William R. Grove built the first hydrogen fuel cell in 1839. As in the case of internal combustion, fuel cells have been continually perfected to the point where they can produce electricity with about 90 per cent efficiency. The cost of fuel cells keeps decreasing as they become ever more common in the marketplace.
As promising as these traditional hydrogen energy technologies may be, we come up against fundamental constraints which chemistry places on how much energy we can get out of the hydrogen atom. Otherwise, the conventional wisdom holds that we must resort to thermonuclear explosions or multibillion dollar attempts to control a hot f u s i o n reaction in a so-far unsuccessful effort to reach energy 'breakeven' in a confined plasma.
When we rely on energy coming from combining hydrogen and oxygen chemically, there is a limit which dictates that more energy is needed to produce the hydrogen in the first place. A renewable solarhydrogen and wind-hydrogen economy are viable answers to this problem.2 Another approach is to seek a role which might be played by "new hydrogen energy" based on recent discoveries of powerful excess energies in experiments which haven't yet entered the realm of engineering or commercial application. Because we are are such a crossroads regarding our energy future, perhaps we can now begin to agree on designing a non-fossil-fuel infrastructure while exploring every available option. This paper reviews the most promising possibilities in advanced hydrogen technologies, which are admittedly still in the research phase of a research and development cycle.
During the late 1800s science fiction writer Jules Verne predicted that abundant energy could come from water as a fuel. One century later, his vision seems to be fulfilled.
In 1989, University of Utah electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced a dramatic discovery: deuterium in heavy water placed within the lattice of a special palladium cathode somehow fused with itself to produce striking excess heat and a hint of fusion products such as tritium and helium, but no harmful radioactivity. These often-replicated results could not be explained by traditional chemistry. Energy outputs of up to hundreds of thousands of times greater than inputs were observed, some cells operated with excess energies for up to two months, and the products of nuclear transmutations were commonly detected. In spite of repeated efforts on the part of mainstream nuclear physicists to debunk these results, obtained totally outside their expertise, many experiments showing similar effects have been published by competent electrochemists, ultrasonic re s e a rchers and others at the Electric Power Research Institute, the Stanford Research Institute, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Naval Weapons Center at C h i n a Lake, Texas A&M University, Hokkaido National University, and several other prestigious institutions. 3
Then, in the late 1990s, Dr. Randell Mills of BlackLight Power, Inc., made a second astounding discovery. When he placed water in contact with a potassium- or other metal-compound catalyst, he measured an unexpected release of energy, apperently including as a byproduct a special fractional lower (collapsed) quantum state of hydrogen he called a hydrino. This novel hydrogen chemistry produced over 100 times greater energy than that from ordinary hydrogen combustion. He has constructed prototype hydrogen plasma cells coupled with a gyrotron to directly produce electricity. He claims to be able to scale up this apparatus linearly to generate any amount of power at less than one cent per kilowatt-hour, lower than any known alternative. 4
These claims, while extraordinary, are well-grounded in hundreds of experiments which involve the principle of loading hydrogen into a metal lattice which somehow catalyzes the hydrogen into a collapsed state and/or fusion with itself, with the release of large amounts of energy. Some scientists are just beginning to understand this process from a theoretical perspective, but there is as yet no overall agreement on the underlying physics.(3,4) What makes matters even more challenging is that replication and repeatable results are difficult to achieve at this point. While the excess energy measurments and reaction byproducts are very real, the messy chemistry of catalyzing hydrogen with metals is still an inexact science. But should that cause us to abandon the overall effort? Of course not: the results have been clearly robust enough to continue the research and eventually to perfect the process. Continuing efforts will also help create a new theory of hydrogen chemistry and materials science. This all is part of the sciencific process of discovering, experimenting, modeling, researching, replicating-and later, engineering.
Some years ago, the Japanese government called this anomalous energy "new hydrogen energy", and they began an engineering program during the 1990s to attempt to produce a commercially viable model. As, we shall see, that project was to be doomed primarily because they claimed they were unable to replicate the process. They didn't seem to understand its complexity and they denied positive results reported by visiting American researchers familiar with the process. The phenomena were still elusive enough to remain in the province of basic scientific research, an issue we'll explore later in this article. The fact is, new hydrogen energy is still viable but not quite ready for the marketplace.
We might compare new hydrogen energy to the early days of internal combustion engines, fuel cells or any other remarkable new technology. We know these devices can work, but the time for building completely reliable commercial prototypes has not quite come yet, because we are still within the realm of science and not engineering. And yet the latter community tends to ignore very real progress. Perhaps for convenience, they chose the safe path of siding with the unknowing scientistic skeptics that attempt to deny the evidence. These debunkers often have prestigious credentials in other fields and have clout in the scientific community and the media. This sudden ending of the program need not have happened with a coordinated research and development effort among teams of scientists and engineers freely exchanging their ideas.
Because of its great promise, to ignore new hydrogen energy at this time might be likened to ignoring the potential of airplanes during the time of the first Wright Brothers flights. People were still focused on surface transport and slow airship infrastructures, which were later overtaken by the explosive growth of aviation. I believe that a similar scenario awaits us with new hydrogen energy.
When I first entered the astronaut program in 1967 and later became a scientist on unmanned planetary missions during the early 1970s, I was surprised to discover that NASA was deeply divided in its engineering and science functions. 5 While the engineers were justifiably focused on the familiar tried-and-true technologies, the scientists were continually "pushing the edge of the envelope" on what was possible-whether it was state-of-the-art propulsion technologies or innovative instrumentation to explore the solar system. In NASA, the engineers were managers who usually won these debates and took the cautious path. Unfortunately, the trend in management philosophy is moving even further away from the scientific world view, as unknowing lawyers and business people take over the reins of leadership from engineers who at least might know a little bit about the technical issues.
This ideological divide holds to this very day, and no example is more poignant than that of new hydrogen energy. Not only is the greater community unaware of startling new developments and replications. The results continue to be senselessly debunked by mainstream hot fusion nuclear physicists who know little or nothing about electrochemistry or materials science, and who also feel they have a lot to lose if their multibillion dollar programs couldn't compete with the new results. Because the principles of new hydrogen energy appear to violate the nuclear physicists' understanding of theory, these irrational skeptics tend to hide within the theory and deny the obvious anomalous experimental results that challenge that theory. (3)
The result of all this is a premature public denial of the observed low energy reactions among hydrogen nuclei and atomic hydrogen collapse phenomena. The managers and engineers who will be designing the hydrogen economy will tend to be technologically conservative and will want to go with what has worked consistently for a long time. By default, perhaps, they join the debunkers, when their own abilities to strictly replicate results are fuzzy. The challenges of producing new hydrogen energy continue to be daunting and elusive, certainly not the kind of thing that could be replicated by reading a manual. But the day of rigorous replicability will almost certainly come with continuing basic research. This process of the chaotic, doubt-ridden, long but inexorable move from scientific discovery to engineering application has been with us since the time of Galieo. Especially during times of great change, people are afraid of the change and so deny its existence.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", were the words of famed writer Arthur C. Clarke. He believes (as do I) that new hydrogen energy will have a 99 per cent chance of succeeding.
New Hydrogen Energy Program
Avivid example of the rift between the scientific and engineering management cultures recently happened in Japanese efforts to establish a $23 to $30 million new hydrogen energy program in 1993. The purpose of the program was to translate the astounding results of cold fusion science into engineering reality, but the project became a total failure and was shut down in 1998, because the engineers were supposedly unable to produce excess energy. Many cold fusion experts stopped by to participate, including Martin Fleischmann, Michael McKubre of the Stanford Research Institute, Ed Storms of the Los Alamos National Laboratories, and Melvin Miles of the China Lake Naval Warfare Center. All of these individuals are scientists whose positive results were denied by the Japanese group even though Miles produced excess energy to show to his colleagues right in the laboratory in Sapparo. Nobody wanted to look; their minds had already been made up. This behavior was reminiscent of Galileo's colleagues' refusal to look through his telescope.
In a carefully documented article, Jed Rothwell of Infinite Energy magazine believes that the Japanese program was killed by the incompetence of the engineers. 6 They had underestimated the difficulty of replication and were somehow not motivated to do the necessary scientific, creative and technical work that goes along with successful basic research. Whether by the conspiracy of vested interests among leading mainstream managers, scientists and politicians-or by simple ignorance about what to do and how to do it-this important Japanese effort died because of the lack of necessary teamwork. Their final report was entirely negative, inviting the outrage of the visiting scientists. It gave the public the impression that they tried, that they could not produce the needed effects, and that those reporting positive results were mistaken. Meanwhile the work of Miles and others continued to be ignored by his Japanese colleagues, perhaps because it would have been too much of a political loss for those in charge to change their minds so late in the effort.
New hydrogen energy now sits in an awkward void poised between research and development, between basic and applied science, between the tinkering, hard-to-replicate experiments funded on a shoestring and the creation of a commercial device, between proof-of-concept and the publicly-acknowledged industrial phase. It awaits that break into rigorous replicability. At this point, we are too far down on the toe of the profit curve to invite venture capital, but not so far down as to not invite altruistic capital. In spite of this, the anomalous energy effects continue to be robust and undeniable. The Japanese example becomes similar to the superficial U.S. Department of Energy Panel report denying cold fusion just months after it was discovered. New hydrogen energy is neither the stuff of establishment science nor of mainstream industrial engineering-yet.
Those of us who are evaluating hydrogen futures need to become aware of the significant progress in new hydrogen energy research, which could revolutionize our energy picture in short order, once the necessary science and engineering are done. A sophisticated scenario for a hydrogen economy would include at least two eventualities: one is a "baseline" scenario which includes the tried-and-true hydrogen chemistry of internal combustion and fuel cells, as discussed in this Congress. The second brings into consideration new hydrogen energy and other new energy technologies, which could take the world by storm within a decade or two.
As we conceptualize and begin to build solar-hydrogen systems, we would also want to increase our support of new hydrogen energy research which could lead to commercially viable units within years. Why should we do this? We need to keep our options open until such time we can make a more rational decisions about our energy future. On the one hand, we want to move into an aggressive clean energy program using available technologies. On the other hand, we don't want to make an irrevokable commitment to a particular path which might be unnecessarily capital- or materials-intensive.
The funding of new hydrogen energy research would be two to three orders of magnitude less (on the order of tens of millions of dollars), and its development will be one order of magnitude less, than that for developing a solar-hydrogen infrastructure. The Mills technology, for example, would completely eliminate the need for any solar input at all. One gallon of water could run a vehicle for over 1000 miles without refueling. It could heat and provide electricity for a home for more than a year. Even greater efficiencies could be achieved with cold fusion and over-unity electromagnetic devices.
We also need to discuss which scenarios serve the public interest the most. Are the military applications of powerful new energy technologies sufficiently threatening to want to stop their development and to move instead towards a traditional hydrogen-solar economy? Or can we build in safeguards? These are important questions we must address as we move beyond the denials of new energy. We need to assess all viable clean and renewable options that lie ahead. New hydrogen energy would be far most economical and have least impact on the environment. Power could come from small cells deployed wherever they're needed. There would be no more use for large energy infrastructures, no grids, pipelines or production centers.
Hydrogen is amazing stuff. Our knowledge about its combustion and use in fuel cells have been with us since the birth of the Industrial Age about 200 years ago. The relevant technologies have been available for almost that long, and now they're being given a new look for fueling the 21st Century and beyond. This comprises our "baseline scenario" for a solar-hydrogen economy. But infrastructures would have to become more centralized, more expensive and consume more natural resources than a new hydrogen energy economy.
A second major hydrogen energy technology was born during the Modern Age, with the first explosion of a hydrogen bomb fifty years ago. We discovered how hydrogen could be used for destructive purposes. Since then, we have been struggling to develop hot fusion reactors to generate central-station electricity. The problems with this option are technical challenges, high capital costs, continuing grid systems, more centralization than ever, and some pollution and radioactivity.
It has only been within the past twelve years that a third set of revolutionary hydrogen technologies have emerged. The new hydrogen energy units of the Post-Modern Age will be small, decentralized, cheap and convenient. They will most likely satisfy both environmental and economic criteria for success in the future. We cannot ignore this fact at a time in which we as a culture must wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Engineers, managers, scientists and industrialists alike will need to gather to propose scenarios for consideration as to the best way to proceed in the public interest and not necessarily the interests of vested industry.
Fortunately, the rift between science and industrial engineering is above malice. They are simply different worldviews in which each culture doesn't adequately understand the other. Scientists and inventors tend to be unrealistic about their expectations of commercial application. Engineers tend to cut themselves off from the science prematurely because of their interest to implement a new future which is based on cut-and-dry technology. The shutdown of the Japanese effort to demonstrate new hydrogen energy is an example of this oversight. This kind of rift most often happens at the time of a bold new breakthrough. It can be healed by open discussion of how real and enduring these phenomena are, and how further investigation could almost certainly lead to an energy revolution.
There is actually more malice amongst factions of scientists-especially when the breakthroughs of one set of disciplines (e.g., electrochemistry and materials science) overtake those of another (e.g., nuclear physics). The startling new discovery that there is an energy-producing relationship between hydrogen and some metals unseats the prevailing wisdom that hydrogen can only give off so much energy unless we attempt to confine it within a hot plasma. These squabbles can infect and spread to those who are not aware of the technical content of the debate. In fact, there are many approaches to new energy, any one of which could change the world. 3
In truth, scientists creating breakthroughs and engineering managers are two cultures that could work effectively together, two sides of the same coin. They just need to talk with each other and compare their world views. The engineers need to know more about the dynamics of premature debunkery, and the scientists should be more integrated into management. We all want to be united in purpose, which is to end our dependence on polluting and scarce fossil fuels. With our ever-increasing knowledge of the mysteries of hydrogen science and engineering, we can move to a clean and everlasting hydrogen energy future.
References and Notes
1. An excellent survey of the traditional hydrogen economy is Our Future is Hydrogen! by Robert Siblerud, New Science Publications,Wellington, CO., 2001.
2. John O'M. Bockris and T. Nejat Veziroglu, Solar Hydrogen Energy, McDonald Optima, London, 1991.
3. The state-of-art of advanced hydrogen technologies is ably reported in the bimonthly magazine, Infinite Energy. New Energy is reviewed in Appendix I of this book.
4. Randell L. Mills, "BlackLight Power Technology: A New Clean Energy Source with the Potential for Direct Conversion to Electricity", presented at the International Conference on Global Warming and Energy Policy, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Nov. 2000, Global Foundation, Inc.; also www.blacklightpower.com.
5. Brian O'Leary, The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
6. Jed Rothwell, "The Collapse of the (Japanese) NHE Project", Infinite Energy, Issue 30, 2000.
Back to: ARTICLES AND ESSAYS