Stories tagged hydrogen


Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?
Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?Courtesy bre pettis
Just kidding! The burning sensation is probably just one of the many symptoms you’ll experience during your bout with gonorrhea. It may feel like electric fire, but, really, it’s only inflammation somewhere in your urinary tract.

But while we’re on the subjects of urine, electric fire, and the future, check this out: your bladder is full of rich, savory hydrogen fuel, and some Ohio scientists have found a great way to get at it.

Using urine in power storage/production devices has been explored before, and, naturally, Science Buzz has been all over it. The story that was on Buzz before, however, was about using urine as an electrolyte medium in batteries, so it’s just there to allow the passage of electrons from one material to another. (That’s how I understood it, anyway—I couldn’t get to the original article.)

What we have here is something entirely different. With this technology, it’s the urine itself that could supply power, instead of just activating a chemical reaction in other materials.

Hydrogen, as we all know, is awesome. It’s easy to remember where it is on the periodic table (somewhere near the beginning, I think), it’s light, so it can lift stuff like zeppelins up in the air, it’s super flammable, so it can run the internal combustion engines we love so much, and it can be made to undergo a chemical reaction in a fuel cell, producing electricity. Unfortunately, hydrogen is also kind of... not awesome. Its otherwise delightful explosiveness also means that riding a hydrogen-filled zeppelin isn’t a great idea, it’s tricky to store, and despite being the most common element in the universe, it’s a pain to get a hold of.

We can get hydrogen out of water, because every molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. But those hydrogen and oxygen atoms don’t like splitting apart, so we have to run electricity through water to get them to break up, and depending on how we produced that electricity, it sort of defeats the purpose; we’re using a lot of some other kind of fuel to make hydrogen fuel.

These clever Ohio scientists, however, realized that by using the right materials, they could get hydrogen and nitrogen to split apart from each other with a lot less electricity. (It takes them .037 volts to split hydrogen and nitrogen, compared to 1.23 volts for hydrogen and oxygen.) Where, then, is a cheap plentiful source of nitrogen bound with hydrogen? Where indeed…

You know where this is going: urine, or as I call it, yellow gold. Urea, one of the main components of urine, has four hydrogen atoms bound to two nitrogen atoms. If you put a nickel electrode into some urine and run electricity through it, that hydrogen gets released, and you can do with it what you will.

One cow, claim the scientists, could produce enough hydrogen to supply hot water for 19 houses. A gallon of urine could theoretically power a car with a hydrogen fuel cell for 90 miles. A refrigerator-sized unit, they say, “could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000.” Someone might have to help me out on that last one. That can’t be per kilowatt, or “kilowatt-hour” (how we usually measure electricity usage), because a kilowatt-hour costs about 10 cents these days. I’m assuming that it would cost about $5,000 to build a unit like that, and the cost to run it would largely fall upon your kidneys. (Maybe?) Commercial farms, required to pool their animal waste anyhow, could power themselves with all the spare hydrogen.

It’s a pretty neat idea, and one that I actually had a long time ago. I have to give it to the scientists, though—they definitely advanced on my original idea. See I was just trying to burn urine straight up, and, frankly, it wasn’t working. Nothing about it was working.

I’m wondering, also, what the byproduct of urine-produced hydrogen would be. Fuel cells should just produce water vapor, but what’s happening when the hydrogen is separated from the urea? The chemical formula for urea is (NH2)2CO, so after the hydrogen leaves you’ve got two leftover nitrogen atoms, a carbon atom, and an oxygen atom. Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is N2O, but what about that carbon? We don’t like carbon just wandering around unsupervised these days.

Can anyone help me out here? When we remove the hydrogen from (NH2)2CO, what’s left over?


About four years ago, the X Prize Foundation gave a $10 million award to a team of engineers for building the first private, commercial space craft. Today, the foundation has several other contests going, including prizes for gene sequencing, automotive engineering, and lunar landing. Additional prizes are planned for cancer and longevity research.

Many “big science” research efforts are conducted by government agencies or large companies, both of which try to hold costs down by finding the single best approach. The advantage of prize competitions is that they get dozens of creative teams working on a single problems, trying many different approaches at once, without the restrictions of government or corporate bureaucracy.

The idea is starting to catch on. Last year the US government approved the H-prize for developments in hydrogen-based energy. And Sen John McCain
has proposed a $300 million prize for breakthroughs in battery technology.

Researchers at Penn State University have developed a fuel cell in which common bacteria produce copious amounts of hydrogen. Some experts believe hydrogen will replace oil as the fuel of the future, if we can find a way to produce it cheaply. The new apparatus uses waste water, plant material and bugs to produce hydrogen.


I am the proud owner and driver of a Gordon Ragnarok, a medium sized family sedan. The Ragnarok was developed by my brother and I, hence the Gordon branding. It is fueled by a diamond-rich blend of precious stones (I’ve tried using a more ruby-heavy mixture, but the performance suffers), and it emits a burning stream of sulfurous gas, which is quite harmless to the occupants of the car.

The vehicle is a delight to drive, and is admired by my neighbors and coworkers, however I am beginning to realize that diamond/jewel fuel is increasingly difficult to find. Sure, there are more jewels out there – quite possibly vast reserves of them – but the politics of acquiring and operating a reliable diamond mine are… sticky.

New developments in hydrogen storage technology may be bringing alternative fuels closer to practical application. This is good news for me (and, perhaps, other people, although most other people run their cars on, ha, considerably less concentrated carbon than I use).

Many of you are probably already familiar with the concept behind hydrogen fuel cells (take a look at this post’s tags for some other good blogs on fuel cell technology), but the basic idea is to use an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which can then be used, of course, to run something like, say, a car of the future. What’s more, this car of the future should only emit water vapor, instead of CO2 and other polluting gases. The volunteers in the SMM’s Experiment Gallery have a pretty slick visitor activity where they use a glass of water and miniature fuel cell to power a fan. I recommend it.

Anyhow, there’s lots of science involved here, and some sophisticated proton exchange membranes, and some hydrogen storage tanks. Lots of hydrogen storage tanks, unfortunately. See, safely and efficiently storing enough hydrogen fuel for a vehicle to have a reasonable range (something like 300 miles) has been a major obstacle to fuel cell cars. Compressing enough hydrogen gas into cylinders or storage tanks to reach a sufficient range would be prohibitively heavy and bulky. Scientists in the UK, however, have recently developed a new compound of the element lithium that could allow for high-density, light weight storage of hydrogen.
Li4BN3H10 - Not as pretty as the Ragnarok's crystal fuel, or as cuddly as the Mark II's, but maybe more practical.: "Hydrogen (H) atoms are shown in green, lithium (Li) atoms in dark grey, nitrogen (N) atoms in blue and boron (B) atoms are in grey and inside the pyramids." (Credit: Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)
Li4BN3H10 - Not as pretty as the Ragnarok's crystal fuel, or as cuddly as the Mark II's, but maybe more practical.: "Hydrogen (H) atoms are shown in green, lithium (Li) atoms in dark grey, nitrogen (N) atoms in blue and boron (B) atoms are in grey and inside the pyramids." (Credit: Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)

Crystals of the lithium compound (Li4BN3H10, to be specific) absorb atoms of hydrogen gas, and then release it as needed. The process, called “chemisorption” isn’t anything new, but a material was needed that would be a “light, cheap, readily available material which would enable the absorption/desorption process to take place rapidly and safely at typical fuel cell operating temperatures.” Li4BN3H10 seems to be an excellent mix of those properties, and the scientists involved in the project claim that it could allow for fuel cell cars to become “viable for mass-manufacture within around 10 years.”

Oddly enough, this is where this story loses me a little bit – it seems like we often hear about breakthroughs that place next generation technology right around the corner, and yet it’s difficult to imagine very many people driving around in fuel cell cars in anywhere near ten years. GM, as it happens, produced a prototype fuel cell vehicle in 1966 called “The Electrovan.” I’m sure The Electrovan had some serious practicality issues (it weighed twice as much as a normal van, for one), but, still, that was over forty years ago. The world has produced some rad stuff inside the last forty years (me), but no more Electrovans. Is the problem that, however excited the lithium researchers might be, there are still too many other barriers? Or because it won’t be in the interest of businesses and governments until fossils fuels are no longer a practical option? Or simply because we can’t imagine a near future swarming with Electrovans?

I’m definitely interested in the progress being made with fuel cell technology, and I’m hopeful that practical application isn’t too far away, but that doesn’t mean that my brother and I will be halting the development of the Gordon Ragnarok Mark II. In an effort to take advantage of a cheaper, more plentiful energy source, the Mark II is designed to use puppies as fuel. Theoretically, full-grown dogs should work as well, but dogs suffer from the same storage barriers as compressed hydrogen (heavy, bulky, and potentially dangerous). Woof.

Hydrogen Storage Breakthrough

Wikipedia’s Fuel Cell Entry

A future swarming with Electrovans


Nanotech sponges can absorb hydrogen, carbon dioxide, or methane.

COF-108: Credit: José L. Mendoza-Cortés
COF-108: Credit: José L. Mendoza-Cortés
Omar Yaghi was named one of the "Brilliant 10" by Popular Science magazine last fall, describing him as a "hydrogen nano-architect". Like an architect, Yaghi links together well-defined molecules like building blocks to create porous crystalline structures. Referred to as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, these crystal sponges have nanosized openings which can be customized to soak up only molecules of a particular size (like hydrogen or methane). MOFs could lead to the first workable fuel tanks for a hydrogen cars, or laptops and cell phones.

New material sets record for most surface area per gram.

Yaghi's newest material, called covalent organic frameworks, or COFs "(pronounced "coffs") are crystalline porous organic networks. A member of this series, COF-108, has the lowest density reported of any crystalline material. One gram of COF-108, has a surface area equal to 30 tennis courts. Yaghi specifically cited COFs as a possible storage medium for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration systems.

Learn more about Omar Yaghis and his research:


It seems that everywhere I look, energy is in the news these days. Here are a few more stories that caught my eye recently.

Wind power

Delaware is considering building a massive windfarm in the waters off their Atlantic coast. Experts estimate this could generate enough energy to light 130,000 homes. But some people raise concerns about the damage this might do to migratory birds, ocean shipping, and the natural beauty of the view.

Nano solar panels

We’ve discussed how nanotechnology might revolutionize solar energy elsewhere on this blog. Now come word from Rice University of a breakthrough: an efficient means of creating molecular-sized semiconductors, an important component of high-efficiency solar panels.

Green fuel guide

Ethanol. Biodiesel. Hydrogen. Lots of new fuels are vying to replace gasoline as the automotive energy of the future. Popular Science magazine gives a run-down on the pros and cons of each.

All about CFLs

We’ve had a couple of threads here on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs and the advantages of replacing your regular bulbs with low-energy CFLs. For those who want to learn more, here’s a handy round-up, telling you everything you need to know about these bulbs.


Hydrogen from soybean oil
Hydrogen from soybean oil

Homegrown fuel

Many consider hydrogen to be a perfect fuel. The waste product produced when it is burned is water. Hydrogen is a component contained in a variety of materials but figuring out how to cheaply extract that hydrogen is what one scientist refers to as the Holy Grail of 21st century energy.

U of Mn scientist, Lanny Schmidt, extracts hydrogen from biofuels

Lanny Schmidt, a Regents professor at the University of Minnesota, has invented such a process. It will produce hydrogen from renewable fuels like ethanol, sugar water, or soybean oil.

The reactor is deceptively simple in design. At the top is an automotive fuel injector that vaporizes and mixes the ethanol-water fuel. The vaporized fuel is injected into a tube that contains a porous plug coated with the catalyst. As the fuel passes through the plug, the carbon in the ethanol is burned, but the hydrogen is not. What emerges is mostly carbon dioxide, burnt carbon, and hydrogen gas. The reaction takes only 5 to 50 milliseconds and produces none of the flames and soot that usually accompany ethanol combustion. The reactor needs a small amount of heat to get going, but once it does, it sustains the reaction at more than 700 degrees C. University of MN

Minimize transportation costs

Also, his device is small and portable One of the thorniest economic problems of making biofuel from cornstalks or sawdust has been the cost of transporting the bulky materials to a distant factory. With Schmidt's invention, you wouldn't have to — the "factory" could be located on a farm or at a sawmill.

Electricity without powerlines

Converting biofuels into electricity requires fuel cells which generate electricty from hydrogen. Schmidt imagines a 1 kilowatt unit about the size of a washing machine where the electricity comes from a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, derived from ethanol or other biofuels. This could allow developing countries to eliminate the need for expensive powerlines into rural areas.

Sources: Pioneer Press and MPR


Many people, from the President on down, believe that the US must reduce its reliance on oil. But where will we get the energy we need to run our homes, businesses and cars? People have suggested nuclear power, solar, wind, biomass and many other approaches. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

One idea getting a lot of support is hydrogen—as a fuel or in batteries. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and when you consume it, the only waste product is pure, clean water.

But hydrogen has a lot of drawbacks, too. An article in the November issue of Popular Mechanics runs down the challenges in hydrogen production, storage, distribution and use.

Meeting America’s energy needs will probably require a combination of approaches.

Sir William Robert Grove, British physicist and high court justice, invented the fuel cell in 1839 (!), when he mixed hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte to produce electricity and water. The technology wasn't seriously revisited until the 1960s, and it's Buzz-worthy again today as we try to break our dependence on fossil fuels.