West Lafayette (IN) - A 40-year old research effort by Purdue University professor Dr. Jerry Woodall has produced the world's most efficient way of creating hydrogen. And while Dr. Woodall's invention could be used to power hydrogen-based cars, the realities are that the energy required to do so makes it an impractical solution. The dream of the car running on water has been derailed by the science-reality alarm clock.
Dr. Jerry Woodall is most impressive. When I had the opportunity to visit him last week I was struck greatly by a man who's devoted his entire life to science. When he worked at IBM back in the '70s he invented some of the very circuit technologies that enable cell phones and LEDs to operate today. His roots in computer science, and specifically the practical adaptation of exotic materials for semiconductors, have seen his name ride many patents. The aluminum/gallium material he's developed for the water-conversion process is actually an accidental off-shoot of his early three-part work with aluminum, gallium and arsenic at IBM.
In 1967, Dr. Woodall came across a material almost by accident. It was a mixture of gallium and aluminum which would completely react with water, extracting the hydrogen very quickly. The process was so complete that only a slurry of aluminum oxide and gallium was left in the mix. This got him thinking about the practical applications.
He gave me a first-hand demonstration of this technology and I must say I was quite impressed. I wasn't sure what to expect when I drove to Purdue, but what I saw was definitely usable. Within seconds of dropping two fingernail-sized pebbles of the material into a small container of water it began bubbling like a carbonated drink that had been shaken up. The reaction consumed the source in about 60 seconds or so with an undisclosed volume of hydrogen coming off (it wasn't measured). The water vessel was about 1 liter and it hadn't notably increased in temperature, indicating this was a small reaction. He told me the conversion rate generates the equivalent energy of 1.1 KWh per pound of source material. No secret here: Large applications like cars, golf carts or submarines it would require a significant amount of source material.
Dr. Woodall told me that an adapted propane tank had been used previously as a test vessel. It contained only a small quantity of his material that was submerged in water and capped off. It reacted quickly inside and populated the tank's atmosphere to about 110 psi. He then piped that gas into a simple gasoline engine with a converted carburetor so it would run on hydrogen. It powered a 4KWh generator for ten minutes before exhausting the hydrogen supply. It was a simple test, but one proving the gas could power an internal combustion engine.
Immediately after arriving at Dr. Woodall's office he drove me out to the Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories research facility. It's located west of the Purdue campus just past the airport. In that small group of buildings sit several rocket propulsion scientists working on several different projects.
Nearby were some other buildings of interest that Dr. Woodall made a point of showing me. Among the various buildings housing all kinds of rocket fuel and research experiments was an actual blast wall. It's the kind you see on the History channel where they test-fire rockets.
While we were there looking at the wall and talking there were some young scientists and a professor outside milling around a very interesting looking contraption. I could not help but think for just a moment: okay, beginning of school year, rookies, danger Will Robinson, danger. And yet, Dr. Woodall was not concerned in the slightest. He just turned the car around slowly and drove off telling me about how the aluminum/gallium water reaction will continue giving off gas beyond the capacity of any pressure vessel to contain it. In fact, he said it would easily exceed 10,000 psi in out-gassing pressure.
When we got back to his office he took me through the process from a chemistry point of view. And it was the very basic formula everybody quoted in the comments section of our previous article.
Water and aluminum are consumed to produce hydrogen. The math involved works out such that it takes twice as much input energy based on what you get out as both heat and hydrogen. And for all practical purposes, you cannot reclaim the heat generated so it's really quite inefficient, especially compared to gasoline. However, it does have advantages. Dr. Woodall is working on projects exploiting those advantages right now.
For example, Dr. Woodall kept saying that this kind of energy system doesn't make sense unless you have a need for clean, portable energy. Electricity, gasoline, these are all better sources of power. But, if you can't run an extension cord, and you don't want to burn hydrocarbons, then you're left with something like solar power or Dr. Woodall's invention.
Dr. Woodall's invention has the advantage of being an on-demand power supply system that can be scaled to any volume. All you need is more of the mix and water. The more you combine, the more gas is given off.
Dr. Woodall told me a couple of interesting things about that. First, the ability exists to store as much fuel by volume as would be required for gasoline for the same amount of power (though it's about three times the weight, including the water). To drive 400 miles, for example, it would require a certain volume of gasoline. With his material, the same space can be used with the only waste products being heat, water vapor and aluminum oxide. The gallium goes along for the ride and can be completely reclaimed via a centrifugal process.
Read on the next page: Inexpensive gallium, low-power combination
Dr. Woodall has refined his process from earlier attempts. His current process involves an 80/20 ratio (by weight) of aluminum to gallium. Though he hopes to eventually get it up to something around 90 to 95. He also indicated that today he can use very inexpensive gallium.
Refined gallium costs about $1/gram at the purity required for semiconductors. However, Dr. Woodall spoke with some of the six worldwide gallium producers and found out some interesting facts. Gallium undergoes several steps to make it pure. He was able to discover that, after a single pass through the gallium purification process, it is comprised of 87% gallium, 11% indium, 1% tin and the rest is what he called "junk". That 87% gallium is more than sufficient for the process Dr. Woodall uses. And therein lies the cost savings. The lesser pure version of gallium only costs about $2-$5 per pound. And that can make quite a difference in initial costs for the same performance.
Dr. Woodall indicated that the process that takes raw aluminum and gallium and combines them into the 80/20 ratio mixture consumes only 3% of the output power eventually released. This makes that part of the process less expensive.
Still, origination and reclamation of the aluminum is the most expensive process in terms of manufacturing cost. It is there where the bulk of the twice-as-much input power to generated power is consumed.
Dr. Woodall indicated there are fuel cell technologies in the laboratory today which hit the 75% efficient mark. If such fuel cells could be economically created, then vehicles that operate using his energy-expensive process would actually then be more efficient than gasoline engines. But the efficiency in fuel cells is outweighed by their high cost. He talked about millions of dollars for high-capacity, large electrical volume fuel cells. And, they typically have only a few thousand hours of use before something breaks internally and they just stop working completely all of a sudden.
Submarines, cars and other vehicles
I asked Dr. Woodall about the claim made on his press release regarding his technology powering submarines. He smiled and told me it would work. It would receive salt water from the sea, run it across his fuel, generate hydrogen which would be burned to produce mechanical motion powering generators. I got the distinct impression he was enjoying that explanation. Still, he was right, in theory it would work. It would just require so much of his 80/20 material that it would be very impractical.
As mentioned above, powering cars with his material is possible. It would be clean, requiring only about the same volume of storage space for the water and 80/20 material as gasoline does today. Yet, the exhaust would be water vapor and heat. A type of recycling system would be used to take the spent aluminum and gallium and reclaim it through processing.
It would work basically like milk containers. Each day the 80/20 man would come by, pick up your spent 80/20 and drop off new. In that way, you fill your 80/20 fuel tanks for your home, your car, your mower, whatever. Dr. Woodall got a big kick out of telling me this type of system would involve serious infrastructure changes. You get the idea: It would not be very practical.
Read on the next page: Real projects, supplying hydrogen, conclusion
Dr. Woodall is currently working on real products that will be manufactured. The first is an in-home generator facility for the medically fragile here in my home city of Indianapolis. Next year, a company called Algalco will begin producing these generators not for sale, but as a proof of concept. Each generator will provide 1 KWh of electricity for about 10-20 hours, depending on use. The idea is to keep refrigerated medicine and other related medical supplies from becoming damaged if the power ever goes out. The system is designed to automatically switch on when the input power ceases.
Dr. Woodall is also working with the golf cart industry and Native Americans. He has demonstrated that golf carts operating on his 80/20 material are much more efficient, provide better power and are less costly to maintain than existing lead-acid batteries. The same type of recycling system would be used as was mentioned above for cars. This project is about two years away from seeing reality, I was told. If everything proceeds as planned, in 2009 they will begin rolling out commercial golf carts.
The Native American plan utilizes one of the benefits of being a completely sovereign nation, namely that of not being held responsible by the federal government for rules and regulations regarding experimental power. Dr. Woodall plans to introduce this technology into a completely green system. Whereas it does take twice the input power to prepare and use for the power generated by it, the process is completely green if the source electricity can come from wind, solar or hydro-electric sources. And that is just what Dr. Woodall is planning on the Native American lands. This project is also about two years off, provided everything proceeds as planned.
Dr. Woodall told me there is enough aluminum and gallium in the world to power 1 billion vehicles if nothing was recycled. That's enough to power our nation's energy needs for the next fifty years. And with recycling, the quantity we have is virtually inexhaustible. Dr. Woodall made it a point to tell me that these are real numbers, not manufactured ones. These are based on worldwide estimates of the amount of aluminum and gallium which are available.
He also told me that the supply of hydrogen generated does not have to be at high pressure. In fact, it would not need to exceed something around 50 psi to be operable. In such a system, a tank with water would be used. Into the tank would flow raw 80/20 material. It would generate its gas and, when spent, be extracted out or isolated mechanically. More 80/20 material could be added to keep the pressure up as needed.
No large volumes of hydrogen are required with his system and no high pressure. Dr. Woodall informed me that up to 25% of the hydrogen stored in a conventional high-pressure hydrogen storage tank (in pressurized gas form) can be lost overnight. With his invention, that is not a requirement because the hydrogen is at much lower pressure.
Some consideration is needed with regards to permanent storage. The 80/20 mix will actually draw water out of the air in order to complete recombination. This will result in any tank where 80/20 is stored having a small degree of hydrogen within. Dr. Woodall told me that it would eventually reach equilibrium, but it must be a real component that's considered in any practical endeavor.
I must say truthfully that Dr. Woodall was quite a character. It's always fun to talk to intelligent people because they just rattle off stuff you don't hear anywhere else. At one point, we found ourselves singing the lyrics to "Wernher von Braun" by Tom Lehrer. If you haven't heard it before, see if you can't find it online. It's quite funny. In any event, I was only up at Purdue for about three hours, and yet I could've talked to him the rest of the day.
Dr. Woodall is very passionate about his work. He's very exacting. While his inventions definitely do not yield cars that run on water, other related childhood dreams of green power are not that far off. He currently has a patent pending for the 80/20 ratio and is seeking ever higher ratios. And unless we can harness the wind continuously, or the sun, or the rivers, and do so no matter where we are, then his system may well turn out to be the most green that's out there. A simple chemical reaction takes place to produce hydrogen. And if fuel cell technology ever breaks into the mainstream at 75% or greater efficiencies, then Dr. Woodall's invention would literally be the true alternative to gasoline. And our childhood dreams of having cars that run on water would be real.