Tag Archives: hydrogen

Hydrogen-powered train to start making trips in Germany by the end of 2017

Last week, French company Alstom showcased the first hydrogen-powered passenger train in the world. The vehicle will begin real-world testing on one line in Germany in 2017.

Image credits Alstom.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology allows engineers to create powerful transportation vehicles that emit only water — condensed, or as steam. Now the tech has finally been used to create a working train. Named Coradia iLint, the vehicle was unveiled at InnoTrans, an annual trade show in Berlin last week.

This super-quiet passenger train holds a hydrogen fuel tank on the cars’ roof, supplying fuel cells that generate electrical energy for the engine. Alstom hopes that this system will replace Europe’s fleet of diesel-burning trains, which are still seeing heavy use across the continent despite wide-scale electrification projects.

In the last months of 2017, the train will start running on the Buxtehude-Bremervörde-Bremerhaven-Cuxhaven line in Lower Saxony. The German Federal Railway Authority Eisenbahn-Bundesamt will start testing in fall 2016 and is expected to release a report on the vehicle by end of 2017. While yet unapproved by the Eisenbahn-Bundesamt, Lower Saxony’s local transportation authority has ordered 14 trains of the type from Alstom.

The iLint is the first train to power along railroads through hydrogen cells alone, but the idea is about a decade old now. Former AT&T strategic planned Stan Thompson coined the term “hydrail” in 2004 to describe any rail vehicle that uses hydrogen fuel cells. There have been several prototype hydrails in the past, most notably in Japan.

Hopefully, now that we have a working, commercially successful example of a hydrail, the technology will gain traction much faster — on rails and roads alike.


Hydrogen peroxide made from seawater might one day power fuel cell cars

Using energy from the sun, researchers converted seawater into hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) — a fuel that can be used in fuel cells, instead of elemental hydrogen.


Credit: Pixabay

The hydrogen economy — the idea of using hydrogen as an alternative fuel — was seen as very promising during the Bush administration, but its limitations quickly showed and progress put on hold.

For one, there’s an infrastructure problem in supplying cheap hydrogen. Most hydrogen today is made from reforming methane fuel using energy-intensive processes — energy which comes from fossil fuels. Secondly, hydrogen is very capricious. Being the smallest molecule, it readily leaches out of containers. For a hydrogen car equipped with fuel cells, this means that it needs to store the hydrogen in high-pressure tanks or, alternatively, in a liquid state under cryogenic temperatures. Again, this means a lot of energy.

The team led by Shunichi Fukuzumi at Osaka University provides an interesting solution to both problems. On one hand, the hydrogen peroxide fuel can be generated efficiently from seawater (H2O), “the most earth-abundant resource”, solely using energy from the sun. On the other hand, the fuel can be stored in ambient conditions at high densities.

To generate the hydrogen peroxide, a photoelectrochemical cell is bathed in sunlight. The photons are absorbed by a photocatalyst which becomes activated and triggers the oxidation and reduction of oxygen from the seawater. A full 24-hours later, the hydrogen peroxide concentration in the seawater reaches 48 mM, or 24 times more than that reported with previous methods.

“In the future, we plan to work on developing a method for the low-cost, large-scale production of H2O2 from seawater,” Fukuzumi said for Phys.org. “This may replace the current high-cost production of H2O2 from H2 (from mainly natural gas) and O2.”

Responsible for this massive boost in efficiency, which measures 0.55 percent, seems to be the chlorine naturally found in seawater. Overall, the system is still lacking. Right now, making H2O using conventional methods and energy from solar panels is a lot more efficient, but there’s room to grow. One day, this process might be refined so the fuel is produced cheaply, efficiently and fast. Oh, and another thing. Hydrogen peroxide is one the most reactive chemicals out there and will explode if heated to boiling. If a hydrogen peroxide tank is ever fitted to a car, engineers should better make it damn safe.

Self assembling nano material brings us tangibly close to water-powered cars

Indiana University scientists have built a highly efficient bio-material that can serve as a catalyst for hydrogen production. This material takes us halfway towards the long sought-after “holy grail” of splitting water to make hydrogen and oxygen for fueling cheap and efficient cars that run on water.

Artist’s rendering of P22-Hyd, the new biomaterial created by encapsulating a hydrogen-producing enzyme within a virus shell.
Image via sciencedaily

The team started with an enzyme called hydrogenase that can extract pure hydrogen gas out of water. The substance broke down easily however, so they strengthened it by placing it inside the capsid (the protein shell) of a bacterial virus. The new material is now 150 times as efficient than the unaltered enzyme.

“Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” said lead author Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough Professor of Chemistry in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.

“The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.”

The hydrogenase was produced using genetic material harvested from the common bacteria Escherichia coli, namely the genes hyaA and hyaB. The enzyme was then inserted inside the protective capsid of a virus known as bacteriophage P22,using methods previously developed by IU scientists.

The resulting biomaterial, called “P22-Hyd,” is much more efficient and durable than the enzyme alone, and is obtained through fermentation process at room temperature. P22-Hyd is dirt cheap (fermentation is free) and more environmentally friendly than materials currently used for fuel cells. The authors compare it to platinum, the most commonly used hydrogen catalyst today.

“This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable,” Douglas said.

“You don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material.”

As a bonus, P22-Hyd both breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen and also works in reverse to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power.

“The reaction runs both ways — it can be used either as a hydrogen production catalyst or as a fuel cell catalyst,” he added.

Out of three naturally ocuring forms of hydrogenase, the team chose to use nickel-iron (NiFe)-hydrogenase — the others being di-iron (FeFe)- and iron-only (Fe-only)-hydrogenase. This form was preferred due to its ability to easily integrate into biomaterials and tolerate exposure to oxygen.

Unaltered NiFe-hydrogenase is highly susceptible to destruction from chemicals in the environment and breaks down at room temperatures — a poor choice for fuel cells. Encapsulation allows it much greater chemical resistance and enables it to catalyze at temperatures exceeding “comfortable,” permitting its use in manufacturing and commercial products such as cars.

“[These shortcomings are] some of the key reasons enzymes haven’t previously lived up to their promise in technology,” Douglas added.

Another is their difficulty to produce.

“No one’s ever had a way to create a large enough amount of this hydrogenase despite its incredible potential for biofuel production. But now we’ve got a method to stabilize and produce high quantities of the material — and enormous increases in efficiency.”

Seung-Wuk Lee, professor of bioengineering at the University of California-Berkeley, whose work has been cited in a U.S. Congressional report on the use of viruses in manufacturing and unaffiliated with the study, applauds the team’s work, saying:

“Douglas’ group has been leading protein- or virus-based nanomaterial development for the last two decades. This is a new pioneering work to produce green and clean fuels to tackle the real-world energy problem that we face today and make an immediate impact in our life in the near future.”

Beyond the new study, Douglas and his colleagues continue to craft P22-Hyd into an ideal ingredient for hydrogen power by investigating ways to activate a catalytic reaction with sunlight, as opposed to introducing elections using laboratory methods.

“Incorporating this material into a solar-powered system is the next step,” Douglas concluded.

Brain scans help researchers develop better condoms

It’s no secret that when it comes to condoms, the pleasure factor plays a big role – some people simply don’t want to use condoms because it diminishes their pleasure. With that in mind, researchers from Australia are now working to create condoms that feel just like bare skin… or even better!

Different types of existing condoms – all made from Latex. Image via Wikipedia.

This year, over 27 billion condoms have been sold, but that’s not nearly enough. The effectiveness of condoms isn’t called into question, but the design of the product has remained largely unchanged for the past century. Scientists from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia want to change that and develop condoms using a material called hydrogel that feels just like human skin, and has some amazing properties.

Hydrogel is a term generically used for solid, jelly-like materials with a range of special properties.

“Hydrogels are mostly made of water, held together by molecular chains called polymers. They have properties very close to human tissue, and can be tailored to feel a lot like skin,” says Bridgette Engeler Newbury, one of the project leads at Swinburne.

In this case, the hydrogel doesn’t only feel as good as nothing at all, but can also be laced with medicine to fight sexually transmitted infections. It’s also tougher and thinner than latex – the material currently being used for condoms.

“Hydrogels are mostly made of water, held together by molecular chains called polymers,” Newbury added. “They have properties very close to human tissue, and can be tailored to feel a lot like skin.”

But before they move on with their design, they have to answer a deceivingly complex question: how good do the hydrogel condoms actually feel?

In order to answer this question, they used EEG scanners to see how a person’s brain responds when they touch different materials (with their hand).

“Measuring changes in brain activity is an effective way of determining whether or not the hydrogel is more preferable than existing condoms,” said Joseph Ciorciari, who is leading the brain scan study.

Using neuroscience to gauge how nice different materials feel was his idea, and after the first tests were promising, they moved on to a larger sample size.

“The EEG allows us to measure the brain’s subconscious responses to the material, before the participant has even had the chance to decide whether or not they are going to respond positively to it,” Dr Ciorciari says. “This removes any bias or pre-existing influences from the equation. Measuring changes in brain activity is an effective way of determining whether or not the hydrogel is more preferable than existing condoms.”

The trial is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, under the Grand Challenges and Explorations Grants.

cobalt catalyst

This cheap catalyst might finally make the hydrogen economy work

Hydrogen is a great medium for storing energy. It can be used as an alternative to batteries to store the excess energy from renewable energy systems like solar panels or wind turbines, and can be released from a tank to power a vehicle equipped with fuel cells. More than a decade ago, these prospects hyped the so called “hydrogen economy”. Governments and funding agencies drew up ambitious plans to develop cheaper fuel cells and to enable cars to store practicable quantities of hydrogen. In 2003, President George Bush committed $720 million to the research effort. But eventually… it all turned out to be a pipeline dream mostly because of two shortcomings: hydrogen is very expensive to store and make; from renewable sources at least.

cobalt catalyst

Bathed in simulated sunlight, this photoelectrolysis cell in the lab of Song Jin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using a catalyst made of the abundant elements cobalt, phosphorus and sulfur. Image: David Tenenbaum/University of Wisconsin-Madison


A novel research attempts to solve this latter issue underlying the hydrogen economy. Prof Song Jin of Most of University of Wisconsin-Madison says his team found an exiting new catalyst that can split water into hydrogen almost as well as platinum, the highly expensive noble metal used both in electrolysis devices and fuel cells.

Man-made hydrogen is made through methane reforming, a process in which hot tubes heat the methane gas and steam in the presence of a catalyst to create pure hydrogen. This is the cheapest way to make hydrogen available today because you can make lots of it at a time. The disadvantage is that you have to burn a lot of energy and it’s all fossil fuel based. The other alternative is to split water molecules using electrolysis, with electricity sourced from renewable energy. To problem is that both fuel cells and electrolysis machines require expensive catalysts based on noble metals like palladium or platinum.

“In the hydrogen evolution reaction, the whole game is coming up with inexpensive alternatives to platinum and the other noble metals,” says Song Jin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jin’s team was experimenting with iron pyrite and other inexpensive, abundant materials for energy transformation for quite a while. They struck gold when they eventually replaced the iron with cobalt. To the cobalt pyrite they added phosphorus resulting in a new material that’s been found to be highly effective as a catalyst. According to Jin, it’s the best non-noble metal catalyst and almost on par with platinum, but while platinum is traded with almost $1000 per ounce the cobalt catalyst is dirt cheap. What’s more, the catalyst also works as a photocatalyst, meaning it can kick start a reaction using energy provided by the sun directly, as reported in Nature Materials.

Of course, platinum electrolyzers are still the most efficient. For the same money, however, you could build more stacks based on the cobalt catalyst and effectively generate more hydrogen or energy for the same unit price. “One needs to consider the cost of the catalyst compared to the whole system. There’s always a tradeoff: If you want to build the best electrolyzer, you still want to use platinum. If you are able to sacrifice a bit of performance and are more concerned about the cost and scalability, you may use this new cobalt catalyst,” Jin says.

The UWM researchers have already filed for a patent and if the findings can be transferred from the lab into the real world, it could prove quite exciting.

Astronomers discover huge hydrogen cloud around exoplanet

Astronomers using the Hubble telescope have identified a warm Neptune-sized planet that is “bleeding” a huge hydrogen cloud – thus increasing the odds of finding liquid oceans on gas giants.

The Orion Nebula, where the planet “resides”

This phenomenon has been observed before, but at a much smaller scale – it’s the first time it’s been studied at such an amplitude. The cloud of hydrogen has been dubbed as “The Behemoth” bleeding; it’s evaporating from the planet due to extreme radiation, but even with this immense emission, the planet itself is not threatened.

“This cloud is very spectacular, though the evaporation rate does not threaten the planet right now,” said the study’s leader, David Ehrenreich from the Observatory of the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “But we know that in the past, the star, which is a faint red dwarf, was more active. This means that the planet evaporated faster during its first billion years of existence. Overall, we estimate that it may have lost up to 10 per cent of its atmosphere,” said Ehrenreich.

With a mass approximately 23 times that of our Earth located 33 light years away, the exoplanet GJ436b is extremely close to its star and revolves around it in less than three days. Due to its proximity to the star, it’s also very hot. Some scientists believe that Earth too may have once had a hydrogen atmosphere that was slowly burned away. If so, Earth may previously have sported a comet-like tail, but this is only a supposition at this point.

Astronomers were able to study this planet because the hydrogen absorbs the ultraviolet light of the parent star and reflects it back to Hubble – in other words, you can identify hydrogen even from light years away.

Chinese scientists build first hydrogen-powered tram

China is the largest polluter in the world at the moment, and they’re also reaping what they sew. But you can’t accuse the Chinese for not trying to right their ways – at least some of them; in an effort to mitigate the ridiculous amounts of smog that clouds some of China’s cities, scientists have developed the first hydrogen-powered tram.

Image: New China TV

With one gas tank, it can travel 100 km, with a top speed of 70 km/h, and can transport 380 passengers at a time. The vehicle has been in development for the past two years, and it reportedly came out of production last week, in the coastal city of Qingdao. What’s awesome about this tram is that its only emission is water. It’s also cheap to run, and a tank refill takes only 3 minutes.

“The average distance of tramcar lines in China is about 15 kilometres, which means one refill for our tram is enough for three round trips,” Liang Jianying, chief engineer of the Sifang Company, told the Xinhua news agency.

Personally, I think this is definitely a step in the right direction and I’d like to see more ideas like this, in more parts of the world – but China still has a long way to go before reaching normality. Recently, a documentary on Chinese pollution has taken the country by storm, being seen by hundreds of millions of people before being banned by the Chinese authorities. Meanwhile, smog is running rampant in the Beijing area, 20% of Chinese farmland is polluted and in many cities, air pollution can actually be seen from outer space. It’s a long way to go, and hydrogen trams aren’t going to do it alone – but it’s still something.



Artificial leaf breakthrough makes solar fuels one step closer

A team at Caltech has devised a new film coating that facilitates catalysis and electron transfer in a solar powered system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used as fuels. Such a system is also called an artificial leaf or solar-fuel generator because in many ways it mimics the process which plants use to convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and fuel (sugars, carbohydrates). The researchers make note, however, that they’re still a long way from making it commercial viable, but these sort of updates are inspiring.

Inspired by nature, nurtured by technology


Image: Techietonics

The artificial leaf developed at the Caltech Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) consists of three main components: two electrodes — a photoanode and a photocathode — and a membrane. At the photoanode side, water molecules are split into oxygen gas (O2), electrons and hydrogen protons through oxidation in the presence of sunlight and the thin film coating the team recently developed. The coating is a nickel oxide film that prevents rusts building-up on the semiconductor electrodes (silicon or gallium arsenide), while also acting as a highly reactive catalysis. The electrons travel through a circuit to the photocathode where they combine with the hydrogen protons to make hydrogen gas (H2). Like in a fuel cell, the membrane is not only essential to collecting the hydrogen, but also to keep the highly reactive oxygen and hydrogen from recombining. In some cases, this reaction can also lead to explosions. Essentially, the Caltech membrane for their artificial leaf only allows hydrogen protons to pass through, like an ion sieve, while hydrogen and oxygen gases are safely and separately expelled to use as fuels or oxidants.

Ke Sun's reflection onto a sample coating with the nickel oxide film his team developed. Image: Lance Hayashida, Caltech Marcomm

Ke Sun’s reflection onto a sample coating with the nickel oxide film his team developed. Image: Lance Hayashida, Caltech Marcomm

Of course, the system is nothing new – the coating represents the real breakthrough. The photoelectrodes, left by themselves, are very vulnerable to oxidation (rust) and in a short while this ruins the solar-fuel generator’s operation. Scientists had to find a film that is easy to apply, highly catalytic, doesn’t oxidize and cheap to make. It took a lot of hard work, but eventually the team led by Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, hit the jackpot.

“After watching the photoanodes run at record performance without any noticeable degradation for 24 hours, then 100 hours and then 500 hours, I knew we had done what scientists had failed to do before,” says Ke Sun for ZME Science, a postdoc in Lewis’s lab and the first author of the new study.

The film also had to work well with the membrane to make it safe. To make the nickel oxide coating, the researchers used  a technique which involves smashing atoms of argon into a pellet of nickel atoms at high speed.

“Without a membrane, the photoanode and photocathode are close enough to each other to conduct electricity, and if you also have bubbles of highly reactive hydrogen and oxygen gases being produced in the same place at the same time, that is a recipe for disaster,” Lewis says regarding his findings published in PNAS. “With our film, you can build a safe device that will not explode, and that lasts and is efficient, all at once.”

Next, Lewis and colleagues need to perfect the photocathode. Their system isn’t viable (too little hydrogen is made), but at least one key piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has eluded scientists for the past 50 years has been solved.

The latest Toyota hydrogen car, the Mirai. Image: Toyota

Toyota releases all its 5,680 hydrogen car patents for free

Major automaker Toyota announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that it would release all of its nearly 6,000 patents pertaining to hydrogen car technology royalty-free for the next five years. Officials most likely hope that this sort of move will encourage other auto manufacturers and capital to invest in the hydrogen economy.  Of the nearly 6,000 patents, about 1,970 are related to the in-vehicle fuel cell stacks, 290 surround the technology of high-pressure hydrogen tanks needed to safely transport the fuel, and 70 relate to hydrogen production.

The latest Toyota hydrogen car, the Mirai. Image: Toyota

The latest Toyota hydrogen car, the Mirai. Image: Toyota

Toyota isn’t the first major auto maker to make such a bold move. In fact, they might as well taken inspiration from Tesla Motors which also released all its patents royalty-free last summer. Both hydrogen and electric cars have failed to win over customers past early adopters and rich eco enthusiasts, and both companies hope that this way there might be enough incentive to get the ball moving. A smart player knows that you need to make the pie bigger, so that even if you get a small slice, it’s still a lot bigger than what you had before.

Before electric and hydrogen cars can take off, however, they first need to settle some of their major issues. Most importantly, infrastructure. Both vehicles need custom filling stations to meet their needs, else customers won’t be able to leave their suburban neighborhood. There’s also an issue concerning their eco friendliness. While both types of cars have zero emissions during operation, their life cycle says otherwise. Hydrogen is mainly made from refining methane in an energy intensive process that burns fossil fuel. The same can be said about the electricity that charges the batteries for the electric car; batteries which are made from toxic materials, also manufactured in an energy intensive process.

Yes, there are many hurdles ahead, but I for one salute Toyota’s initiative. What kind of progress would the world see if everything was “open source”? I’d leave that to you to answer.

via ThinkProgress

In simple terms, graphene, is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. Image: Wikimedia

Graphene membrane allows mobile Fuel Cells to harvest Hydrogen straight from Air

A team of UK researchers led by none other but  Nobel Laureate Andre Geim – one of persons involved in graphene’s discovery in 2004 – has shown that the wondrous two dimensional material graphene can used as a proton exchange membrane in fuel cells. The find took everybody by surprise since no one expected graphene could allow protons to pass through its tight, one-atom thick hexagon structure. In addition, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas out of the atmosphere making it possible for mobile fuel cells to run on nothing but air!

A graphene membrane for better fuel cells

In simple terms, graphene, is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice.  Image: Wikimedia

In simple terms, graphene, is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. Image: Wikimedia

Among graphene’s many useful properties (strongest material, extraordinary electrical conductivity, self-repair ability, flexibity etc.) is its impermeability. It would take billions of years for hydrogen, the smallest molecule, to pierce a graphene monolayer. This makes it a great containing material, especially for small gas molecules known to quickly escape into the atmosphere. Hydrogen cars, for instance, need to store their fuel inside a container that doesn’t diffuse hydrogen, something that has proven to be a challenge. Graphene might help a lot in this respect, yet it’s this extremely tight permeability that made people believe the material is useless in fuel cells.

[READ] Jet fuel and enzymes power fuel cells for the first time

Fuel cells are electrochemical energy converters that combine a fuel, usually hydrogen, with oxygen to directly generate electricity and a H2O by-product, with no intermediate steps in between. Fuel cells are much more efficient than a combustion engine, which uses a two-step conversion process, and if hydrogen is used as a fuel, there are zero emissions. They’re mostly employed today in the automotive industry, but they’re great for using stored energy from renewable sources as well.

fuel cell

There are two indispensable components to a fuel cell: a catalyst and a proton exchange membrane. The idea is to use a catalyst to break the hydrogen atoms into electrons and hydrogen protons. The electrons, blocked by the membrane, travel through a circuit and generate an electrical flux, while the protons, small enough to pass through the membrane, join with the oxygen molecules on the cathode side and form water. These membranes aren’t fail safe though and most often then not, whole hydrogen atoms or methanol (or whatever fuel) can pass through and make the process less efficient.

[RELATED] Graphene bullet-proof armour is ten times better than steel

The University of Manchester  team made a long shot and tested to see if graphene could be used as a proton membrane. Amazingly, they found that  monolayers of graphene and boron nitride are highly permeable to thermal protons under ambient conditions, as reported in Nature. This means that thinner membranes can now be made, ones that are a whole lot more reliable since graphene is a full proof gas separator.

Harvesting hydrogen from the air

Researchers at Manchester also demonstrated an exciting prospect in using graphene one-atom-thick membranes to directly extract hydrogen from a humid atmosphere. The collected hydrogen was in very small amounts, but these are only the first steps – a proof of concept. Imagine a car that uses hydrogen collected from the air, in addition to its stored fuel in tanks  – it would be incredible!

“When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup,” said Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper, in a press release. “You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply a small electric current, and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.”

Lozada-Hidalgo added: “We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is of course tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort.”

Here are a few quick facts about graphene:

  • It is the thinnest compound known to man at one atom thick;
  • the lightest material known (with 1 square meter coming in at around 0.77 milligrams);
  • the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel and with a tensile stiffness of 150,000,000 psi);
  • the best conductor of heat at room temperature (at (4.84±0.44) × 10^3 to (5.30±0.48) × 10^3 W·m−1·K−1);
  • and also the best conductor of electricity known (studies have shown electron mobility at values of more than 15,000 cm2·V−1·s−1).
  • Other notable properties of graphene are its unique levels of light absorption at πα ≈ 2.3% of white light, and its potential suitability for use in spin transport.

In the last couple of years, considerable effort has been spared in order to mass produce graphene. This year, the first process that produces monolayer graphene in bulk was reported. On a more rudimentary level, you can make your own graphene at home using a kitchen blender.  Graphene can be used in a slew of applications, thanks to its extended properties, and once the industry gets the hang of making it in large quantities we might witness a whole new technological revolution. I for one welcome our graphene overlord!

A scheme that shows two methods of hydrogen generation: electrolysis and methane reforming. Image: jaea.go.jp

New electrolysis system produces hydrogen 30 times faster

A scheme that shows two methods of hydrogen generation: electrolysis and methane reforming. Image: jaea.go.jp

A scheme that shows two methods of hydrogen generation: electrolysis and methane reforming. Image: jaea.go.jp

A new method of producing hydrogen has been reported by researchers at University of Glasgow that’s 30 times faster than current state-of-the-art methods, providing yet another advance that might one day lead to a sustainable hydrogen based economy.

There’s only so much that renewable energy can grow with today’s infrastructure due to base load considerations. If the intermittency can be compensated with a storage medium, then solar and wind power can be extended in safely plugged into the grid. Hydrogen is fantastic for energy storage and these latest developments definitely help us reach a point where the hydrogen economy is feasible and make renewable energy the prime mean of generating energy.

[ALSO READ] Researchers split water using device that runs on AAA battery

Hydrogen economy: pipe dream or way of the future?

The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is through electrolysis – an electrochemical method which uses electricity to break the bonds between water’s constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and releases them as gas. There aren’t any environmentally harmful byproducts and the hydrogen can then be stored for later use in fuel cells, for instance, which work like electrolysis in reverse.

[RELATED] US navy synthesizes jet fuel solely from seawater

At an industrial level, the most popular method for generating hydrogen out of renewable power is by using proton exchange membrane electrolysers (PEMEs). These devices, however, require precious metal catalysts (platinum, palladium), and need to be subjected to high pressure and high densities of current. The new method allows larger-than-ever quantities of hydrogen to be produced at atmospheric pressure using lower power loads, typical of those generated by renewable power sources.

“The process uses a liquid that allows the hydrogen to be locked up in a liquid-based inorganic fuel. By using a liquid sponge known as a redox mediator that can soak up electrons and acid we’ve been able to create a system where hydrogen can be produced in a separate chamber without any additional energy input after the electrolysis of water takes place,” according to Professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry.

“The link between the rate of water oxidation and hydrogen production has been overcome, allowing hydrogen to be released from the water 30 times faster than the leading PEME process on a per-milligram-of-catalyst basis,” he added.

There’s a great demand for hydrogen in the world right now, especially for agriculture where the gas is an indispensable component of ammonia fertilizer production. Essentially hydrogen helps feed half the world, at least. But it could also power it. The main problem right now with hydrogen is that it’s far from being sustainable – the way it’s being produced that is. More than 95% of the hydrogen available today is  made via steam-methane reforming, a mature production process in which high-temperature steam (700°C–1,000°C) is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source, such as natural gas. In steam-methane reforming, methane reacts with steam under 3–25 bar pressure (1 bar = 14.5 psi) in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide. So, what we’re seeing is a fossil fuel being subjected to a highly energy intensive treatment, whose energy most likely comes from fossil fuel combustion in the first place.

Developments such as these can only makes us happy and hope for a time where electrolysis systems can produce hydrogen cheaply and fast. Findings appeared in the journal Science.


Stanford scientists split water with device that runs on an ordinary AAA battery

Researchers from Stanford have found a way to split water into oxygen and hydrogen using very little energy; the hydrogen they obtain could be used to power fuel cells in zero-emissions vehicles.

I’m quite excited for cars that run on hydrogen, which are set to hit the market in 2015; but while they are always presented as “zero emission cars”, many of the hydrogen cars will actually use hydrogen obtained with natural gas – which is still a fossil fuel and still has considerable emissions. Hopefully, that will only be a temporary stage, and pretty soon, manufacturers will move on to greener, more sustainable solutions – like this project from Stanford University.

A team working there found a way to separate hydrogen from water cheaply and efficiently, producing water electrolysis only powered by a battery. The battery sends an electric current through two electrodes that split liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Unlike other water splitters that use precious-metal catalysts, the electrodes in the Stanford device are made of inexpensive and abundant nickel and iron.

“Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.”

In addition to producing hydrogen, the same technique could be used to obtain chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, an important industrial chemical.

Hydrogen cars and carbon emissions

Stanford scientists have developed a low-cost device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Gas bubbles are produced by electrodes made of inexpensive nickel and iron.

The auto industry has considered developing hydrogen fuel cell as a promising alternative to the gasoline engine for decades, using fuel cell technology. Fuel cell technology is basically water splitting in reverse – it’s like creating water, and getting energy in the process. Basically, the fuel cell stores hydrogen which reacts with the oxygen from the air to create electricity which powers the car. The only by-product is water – no emissions whatsoever.

Earlier this year, Hyundai began leasing fuel cell vehicles in Southern California, but it’s still a local thing. In 2015, Toyota and Honda will hit the market, selling fuel cell cars. The only problem with this technology is a cheap way of obtaining hydrogen – something for which the Stanford team proposes a simple yet surprising solution.

“It’s been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability,” Dai said. “When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise.”

This could save time and a lot of money, potentially taking gas guzzling cars out of the streets in the long run. The discovery wouldn’t have been possible without Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, co-lead author of the study.

“Ming discovered a nickel-metal/nickel-oxide structure that turns out to be more active than pure nickel metal or pure nickel oxide alone,” Dai said.  “This novel structure favors hydrogen electrocatalysis, but we still don’t fully understand the science behind it.”

Water electrolysis was, of course is not a new thing. The novely comes with the nickel/nickel-oxide catalyst, which significantly reduces the voltage necessary for electrolysis.

“The electrodes are fairly stable, but they do slowly decay over time,” he said. “The current device would probably run for days, but weeks or months would be preferable. That goal is achievable based on my most recent results”

The next step in their research is to make the entire process fully sustainable – that is, obtain the energy for the batteries through solar panels – and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be successful in their attempts.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles, buildings and storing renewable energy on the grid,” said Dai. “We’re very glad that we were able to make a catalyst that’s very active and low cost. This shows that through nanoscale engineering of materials we can really make a difference in how we make fuels and consume energy.”

Journal Reference: Ming Gong,Wu Zhou,Mon-Che Tsai,Jigang Zhou,Mingyun Guan,Meng-Chang Lin,Bo Zhang,Yongfeng Hu,Di-Yan Wang,Jiang Yang,Stephen J. Pennycook,Bing-Joe Hwang& Hongjie Dai. Nanoscale ​nickel oxide/​nickel heterostructures for active ​hydrogen evolution electrocatalysis. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4695 doi:10.1038/ncomms5695

E-CEM Carbon Capture Skid

US navy synthesizes jet fuel solely out of seawater; costs $3-6 gallon

Flying a radio-controlled replica of the historic WWII P-51 Mustang red-tail aircraft—of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen—NRL researchers (l to r) Dr. Jeffrey Baldwin, Dr. Dennis Hardy, Dr. Heather Willauer, and Dr. David Drab (crouched), successfully demonstrate a novel liquid hydrocarbon fuel to power the aircraft's unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine. The test provides proof-of-concept for an NRL developed process to extract carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce hydrogen gas (H2) from seawater, subsequently catalytically converting the CO2 and H2 into fuel by a gas-to-liquids process. - See more at: http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2014/scale-model-wwii-craft-takes-flight-with-fuel-from-the-sea-concept#sthash.mM6Ly1SP.dpuf

Flying a radio-controlled replica of the historic WWII P-51 Mustang red-tail aircraft—of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen—NRL researchers (l to r) Dr. Jeffrey Baldwin, Dr. Dennis Hardy, Dr. Heather Willauer, and Dr. David Drab (crouched), successfully demonstrate a novel liquid hydrocarbon fuel to power the aircraft’s unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.  Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Part of an extraordinary venture, researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) report they’ve synthesized hydrocarbon fuel solely from seawater by transforming the CO2 and H2 found in the water. To demonstrate they viability of the fuel, a replica of the legendary WWII P-51 was fitted by an off-the-shelf (OTS) and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine and fueled by the synthetic jet fuel. Before any red lights go off and you start claiming big oil’s doom, however, there’s more for you to find out. Read on.

Fuel from seawater: it’s not a dream

E-CEM Carbon Capture Skid

E-CEM Carbon Capture Skid. Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

According to NRL, the team there used an electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM) to remove CO2 from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.

Seawater is an abundant source of carbon and thank for global warming, there’s always plenty to go around. The world’s oceans act like a sort of huge carbon sink, as this is where most of the carbon released into the atmosphere winds up. In fact, there’s about 140 times more carbon in seawater than in the atmosphere.  Two to three percent of the CO2 in seawater is dissolved CO2 gas in the form of carbonic acid, one percent is carbonate, and the remaining 96 to 97 percent is bound in bicarbonate.

Making fuel from seawater isn’t exactly a new idea and it has been around for a long time, ever since the first electrolysis converters were made more than a hundred years ago, but were never really popular because of the low efficiency. The NRL boasts a better standing as officials there claim its high process efficiency makes it feasible.

In the first step, an iron-based catalyst (abundant metal material – cheap and easy to manufacture) converts CO2 with up to 60 percent efficiency and decreases methane byproducts to a minimum, in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins). In the second step, these olefins can be converted to compounds of a higher molecular using controlled polymerization.  The resulting synthetic fuel is a hydrocarbon in the C9-C16 range, which makes it suitable for use as a renewable alternative to petroleum-based jet fuel.

So why isn’t this big news?

So far, the system has only been demonstrated in a lab setting, but the installation can be scaled-up by adding more E-CEM modules and reactor tubes to meet fuel demands.  The video below demonstrates the seawater derived hydrocarbon fuel used to power a RC (radio-controlled) replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron.

Does this spell doom for big oil? Far from it, despite what some other sources may say. The scientific paper has yet to be released, but from the scarce details released by the navy it seems the cost of making jet fuel using these technologies is in the range of $3-$6 per gallon, in the next seven years if the project is backed by investments. Personally, I find a lot of things out of place – the researchers may be making too many assumptions.

The thing here is, first of all, you need to take the CO2 and hydrogen out of the seawater, which true enough is an abundant, readily available and free feedstock. Even though there’s 140 times more carbon per volume in seawater than in atmospheric air, you’d still need go through a lot of water, and moving water means using a lot of energy. To be more precise, to make one gallon of jet fuel using this method you’d need to seep through 39,000 gallons of water, assuming the same 80% process efficiency (rarely the same in scaled-up conditions).

It’s a huge engineering design problem. Considering the massive amounts of energy you’d need to both move water and break the CO2 and hydrogen from seawater, I don’t see any genuine way this could work for land-based objectives, like communities and such. Of course, it’s a navy project. Many carriers and some ships are powered by nuclear reactors which always have some excess heat or energy laying about. This could indeed be used to power the water breaking process, maybe even move some water 20 feet above sea level, but hundreds of thousands of gallons by the hour? Speed is of the essence, but moving this kind of weight will definitely slow down a ship and increase energy expenditure for moving the whole ship as a whole. I may be wrong, again I’m no naval engineer expert, but this all sounds extremely speculative.

Despite all this, I applaud their efforts. Clearly, the process works and if they can refine the system and maybe find a way to scale it up (it will most likely imply building new ships from the scratch to accommodate jet fuel production) all for the better. Definitely, this is something worth closely following.


New Device Harnesses Sun and Sewage to Produce Hydrogen Fuel

It almost seems too good to be true – a novel device that uses only sunlight and wastewater to produce hydrogen gas could provide a sustainable energy source, while also improving the efficiency of the waste water system.

A sustainable, self-driven system

deviceIn a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano, a team led by Yat Li, associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz described how they developed the hybrid solar-microbial device which combines a microbial fuel cell (MFC) and a type of solar cell called a photoelectrochemical cell (PEC).

In the Microbial (MFC) component, bacteria generate electricity by degrading the organic material in the waste water. The biologically generated energy is then delivered to the PEC to assist the solar-powered splitting of water (electrolysis) that generates hydrogen and oxygen.

Strictly speaking, both MFC and PEC could be used individually to generate hydrogen gas; the problem however, is that both require a small additional voltage (an “external bias”) to overcome the thermodynamic energy barrier for proton reduction into hydrogen gas. When used together, the two elements are sustainable and self driven, because the combined energy from the organic matter (harvested by the MFC) and sunlight (captured by the PEC) is sufficient to drive the electrolysis of water.

“The only energy sources are wastewater and sunlight,” Li said. “The successful demonstration of such a self-biased, sustainable microbial device for hydrogen generation could provide a new solution that can simultaneously address the need for wastewater treatment and the increasing demand for clean energy.”

Unusual bacteria, scaling, and commercial use

The microbial cells feature some rather unusual bacteria, which are able to generate electricity by transferring metabolically-generated electrons across their cell membranes to an external electrode. In order to develop this component, Li teamed up with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) who have been studying electrogenic bacteria and working to enhance MFC performance. As it turns out, waste water is a perfect environment, as it contains both rich organic nutrients and a diverse mix of microbes that feed on those nutrients, including naturally occurring strains of electrogenic bacteria.

When fed with wastewater and illuminated in a solar simulator, the PEC-MFC device showed continuous production of hydrogen gas at an average rate of 0.05 cubic meters per day. Of course, in order to become actually useful, this invention has to be scaled, and considering that researchers also reported a drop in hydrogen as bacteria used up the organic matter in the wastewater, cuold this become commercially viable?

Scientists are optimistic. They are already in the process of scaling up the small laboratory device to make a larger 40-liter prototype continuously fed with municipal wastewater. This is the intermediary step, and if everything works out fine with that, then they can finally take their results to the municipality.

“The MFC will be integrated with the existing pipelines of the plant for continuous wastewater feeding, and the PEC will be set up outdoors to receive natural solar illumination,” Qian said.

“Fortunately, the Golden State is blessed with abundant sunlight that can be used for the field test,” Li added.

Journal Reference: Hanyu Wang, Fang Qian, Gongming Wang, Yongqin Jiao, Zhen He, Yat Li. Self-Biased Solar-Microbial Device for Sustainable Hydrogen Generation. ACS Nano, 2013; 130916123121001 DOI: 10.1021/nn403082m

The first actual images of hydrogen bonds

Scientists have, for the first time, obtained actual images of one of the most important interactions in the world – the special type of chemical bond called the hydrogen bond, which keeps our DNA together and gives water its unique properties. Using a technique called high-resolution atomic force microscopy (AFM), researchers in China have managed to visualize this bond.

Hydrogen bonds are all over nature, and they’re a vital part of our day to day lives. When a tiny hydrogen atom bonds with a much bigger atom, like nitrogen or oxygen (for example in water), the larger atom pulls away some of the hydrogen’s negative charge, leaving it with a positive charge on one edge. The hydrogen, which has a partial positive charge tries to find another atom of nitrogen or oxygen and is attracted to the partial negative charge. Now, researchers have successfully visualized a molecule called 8-Hydroxyquinoline, an organic compound.

hydrogen bond

We have been familiar with the theoretical model of these bonds for quite a long while, but it’s the first time we got to see how it really looks like. The left hand column shows column shows the actual microscope images, while on the right hand we have the ball-and-stick models. The red molecules are oxygen and the blue are nitrogen and the white are hydrogen.

A different group of researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used a similar method in May to capture the first images of covalent bonds – the chemical bond that involves the sharing of electron pairs between atoms.

bond 2

At a few million atmospheric pressures, Hydrogen nears metal conductivity

Hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe. It’s the first element in the periodic table, and it has but one proton and one electron. Understanding how it behaves at very large pressures is crucial to our understanding of matter and the nature of hydrogen-rich planets.


Under typical conditions, Hydrogen is a diatomic molecule (H2); but as pressure increases, these molecules start to change – these different forms are called phases, and hydrogen as three well known solid phases. But it has also been speculated that at very large pressures, it starts acting like a metal, conducting electricity. As a matter of fact, a few more bold physicists believe that it can even become a superconductor or a superfluid that never freezes–a completely new and exotic state of matter.

In this new paper, a team from Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory examined the structure, bonding and electronic properties of highly compressed hydrogen using a technique called infrared radiation.

The team found the new form to occur between 2.2 million atmospheres at about 25 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) to at least 3.4 million times atmospheric pressure and about -70 degrees Celsius (-100 Fahrenheit).

Their results showed that in these conditions, hydrogen acts like no other structure that we know of. It has two very different types molecules in its structure – one which interacts very weakly with its neighboring molecules (highly unusual for matter at such high pressures), and another which bonds with its neighbors, forming surprising planar sheets.

“This simple element–with only one electron and one proton–continues to surprise us with its richness and complexity when it is subjected to high pressures,” Russell Hemley, Director of the Geophysical Laboratory, said. “The results provide an important testing ground for fundamental theory.”

Via Carnegie


New method traps CO2, rends clean hydrogen and might de-acidify world’s oceans

carbon-cycleHydrogen fuel has been eyeballed by scientists, as well as governments and energy corporations, for many years now as a potential alternative fuel source because of its incredibly high energy. It’s hard to imagine any other non-carbon fuel source capable of driving rockets or high velocity vehicles, like formula 1 sports cars. Besides it being unstable and difficult to extract, however, hydrogen isn’t all that clean to begin with. Sure it has zero emissions at the consumer’s end, but you still need a lot of input energy, typically obtained from burning fossil fuels, to get it out.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently unveiled a new method of removing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide while generating carbon-negative hydrogen and producing alkalinity, which can be used in term to de-acidify oceans – an ever growing concern.

The easiest way of producing hydrogen is through electrolysis of water, however the process is still rather inefficient. The Lawrence Livermore method shines not necessarily through a refined hydrogen extraction, but rather in its ability to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and release carbon-based products (carbonate and bicarbonate) capable of de-acidify oceans.

“We not only found a way to remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing valuable H2, we also suggest that we can help save marine ecosystems with this new technique,” said Greg Rau, an LLNL visiting scientist, senior scientist at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of a paper appearing this week (May 27) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The whole method revolves around the idea that the water left over after we’ve squeezed out the hydrogen fuel is said to be an electrolyte solution with a very high affinity for atmospheric CO2, due to its elevated hydroxide concentration. Current methods of capturing atmospheric carbon, like the famous “artificial trees”, require large amounts of energy to function, which makes the process cumbersome. Again, what’s the point of capturing carbon, if you’re producing it at the input side? It’s clear then why the Lawrence Livermore carbon capture method is so appealing, this despite we’ve yet to see any actual numbers on efficiency and the likes. If their work is actually true to their findings, then this simple air/water interface might prove to be nothing short of a godsend.

The good news don’t stop here either. After absorbing CO2, the electrolyte solution becomes saturated with high pH-producing (alkali) molecules like carbonates and bicarbonates. These bases can then be dumped into the acidic water of the oceans and increase the pH towards a more balanced level. You see, not all of the CO2 goes into the atmosphere. In fact a large fraction of it, some 40%, is absorbed by the water in the oceans. The resulting acidification has dire consequences for marine wildlife, especially corals and shellfish.

“When powered by renewable electricity and consuming globally abundant minerals and saline solutions, such systems at scale might provide a relatively efficient, high-capacity means to consume and store excess atmospheric CO2 as environmentally beneficial seawater bicarbonate or carbonate,” Rau said. “But the process also would produce a carbon-negative ‘super green’ fuel or chemical feedstock in the form of hydrogen.”



Transmission electron microscopy image showing spherical silicon nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter. These particles, created in a UB lab, react with water to quickly produce hydrogen, according to new UB research. Credit: Swihart Research Group, University at Buffalo.

Just by adding water to silicon nanoparticles, scientists almost instantly produced hydrogen

Hydrogen is an extremely appealing energy source, despite the immense hurdles than come with storing it. Still fuel cells based on hydrogen are extremely useful, and a team of researchers at University at Buffalo may have found the fastest and most effective way of obtaining this element. Basically, it’s as easy as adding water.

Transmission electron microscopy image showing spherical silicon nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter. These particles, created in a UB lab, react with water to quickly produce hydrogen, according to new UB research. Credit: Swihart Research Group, University at Buffalo.

Transmission electron microscopy image showing spherical silicon nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter. These particles, created in a UB lab, react with water to quickly produce hydrogen, according to new UB research. Credit: Swihart Research Group, University at Buffalo.

The scientists produced spherical silicon particles about 10 nanometers in diameter. After these were immersed in water a chemical reaction commenced which formed silicic acid (a non-toxic product) and pure hydrogen. The whole reaction took place in under a minute  – that’s 150 times faster than similar reactions using silicon particles 100 nanometers wide, and 1,000 times faster than bulk silicon.

To test the resulting hydrogen for purity, the researchers used the chemical product of their reaction to supply a fuel cell that powered a small fan.

“When it comes to splitting water to produce hydrogen, nanosized silicon may be better than more obvious choices that people have studied for a while, such as aluminum,” said researcher Mark T. Swihart, UB professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the university’s Strategic Strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems.

This gaping differences in reaction times with water between various silicon particle sizes is due to geometry. The smaller the particle is the most likely it is to have an almost spherical geometry which allows for a more uniform surface for water to react with; if the particle is larger , however, then it forms nonspherical structures whose surfaces react with water less readily and less uniformly.

“With further development, this technology could form the basis of a ‘just add water’ approach to generating hydrogen on demand,” said researcher Paras Prasad, executive director of UB’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics (ILPB) and a SUNY Distinguished Professor in UB’s Departments of Chemistry, Physics, Electrical Engineering and Medicine. “The most practical application would be for portable energy sources.”

Although hydrogen was produced simply by adding water, which is something incredible by itself, the problem is that this isn’t quite the best process of obtaining the element at massive scales. In the long run, you don’t need to produce hydrogen that fast, since supply isn’t that great, and producing silicon particles of such a minute size is extremely expensive. So, indeed this technique is a lot more useful for portable applications.

“Perhaps instead of taking a gasoline or diesel generator and fuel tanks or large battery packs with me to the campsite (civilian or military) where water is available, I take a hydrogen fuel cell (much smaller and lighter than the generator) and some plastic cartridges of silicon nanopowder mixed with an activator,” Swihart said, envisioning future applications. “Then I can power my satellite radio and telephone, GPS, laptop, lighting, etc. If I time things right, I might even be able to use excess heat generated from the reaction to warm up some water and make tea.”

source: Buffalo

The interior spongy bone of a rabbit femoral head. (c) Yale University

New MRI technique allows 3-D imaging of non-living material

Researchers at Yale University have successfully mange to utilize a novel MRI technique to 3-D image the insides of hard and soft solids, like bone and tissue, opening the way for a new array of applications, like previously difficult to image dense objects.

 The interior spongy bone of a rabbit femoral head. (c) Yale University Typically, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can produce a 3-D image of an object by using an array of powerful magnets and bursts of radio waves which target hydrogen atoms in the respective object. These hydrogen atoms absorb the radio waves, and then emit them back, revealing their precise location. A computer then interprets these signals and “paints” a picture. It’s a very simple, yet highly productive technique, which is why MRI is so popular, especially in the medical field. However, it’s greatest disadvantage is that it needs a lot of hydrogen to read an object, and as such it only works on water-rich materials, like flesh or the human brain. Bones, very tough materials, rocks or basically almost anything that’s non-living can’t be imaged through MRI, until so far at least.

The Yale scientists have developed a new method for MRI imaging, which they call “quadratic echo MRI of solids,” that works by targeting phosphorus atoms instead of hydrogen atoms. A more complicated sequence of radio waves pulses are fired for them to interact with phosphorus, a fairly abundant element in many biological samples, allowing for high-spatial-resolution imaging.

In the paper published recently in the journal PNAS, the Yale team report on various experiments designed to generated 3D MRIs using the phosphorus technique. They thus performed high-resolution 3D images of ex vivo animal bone and soft tissue samples, including cow bone and mouse liver, heart, and brains.

“This study represents a critical advance because it describes a way to ‘see’ phosphorus in bone with sufficient resolution to compliment what we can determine about bone structure using x-rays,” said Insogna, a professor at Yale School of Medicine and director of the Yale Bone Center. “It opens up an entirely new approach to assessing bone quality.”

The researchers say this new type of MRI would complement traditional MRI, not supplant it. MRI of solids should also be possible with elements other than phosphorus, they say.

The researchers believe this new type of MRI imaging should be used to complement the traditional MRI already in place, and claim that MRI imaging of solids through other elements other than hydrogen or phosphorus should be possible. The quadratic echo MRI technique, however, can’t be used on living beings – for one it generates way too much heat. Immediate applications include archaeology, geology, oil drilling.

Some gas giants have metallic hydrogen in their centers, which explains why Jupiter, for instance, has such a powerful magnetic field. (c) Wikimedia

Scientists turn hydrogen into metal

For years and years scientists have tried to make hydrogen exhibit metal properties, by experimentally proving what’s already been more or less acknowledged in theory. Hydrogen is an alkali metal, and under the right circumstances it can be fooled  into becoming a metal. These “right” circumstances have yet to be found, until recently when a pair of scientists from the Max-Planck Institute  in Germany has released a bold claim that they’ve indeed managed to achieve this extraordinary feat.

Some gas giants have metallic hydrogen in their centers, which explains why Jupiter, for instance, has such a powerful magnetic field. (c) Wikimedia

Some gas giants have metallic hydrogen in their centers, which explains why Jupiter, for instance, has such a powerful magnetic field. (c) Wikimedia

When you think of metal, one tends to image some kind of solid, shiny, electropositive material, generally a good conductor of electricity or heat, and of a certain malleability. How can you possibly make hydrogen act like anything stated earlier? Well, scientists have been slaving away trying to find the right pressure and temperature at which hydrogen should exhibit some kind of metallic quality, but so far  Mikhail Erements and Ivan Troyan are the first to have reached them, according to a recently published paper in the journal Nature Materials.

Their procedure was the following: a sample of hydrogen in a alumina-epoxy gasket that they put inside of a diamond anvil cell, which they first compressed at a pressure of 220GPa (incredibly huge!). A highly calibrated laser then tested the material, which helped the researchers observed that the hydrogen sample began to cloud to the point of becoming opaque and that it could conduct electricity. They then increased the pressure to 260GPa, and also lowered the temperature at 30K, roughly -240 °C (the temperature at which most material become superconductors), and observed an electrical resistance increase of 20 percent. This is where they wrapped it up and concluded that in these circumstances hydrogen exhibits metal properties.

This claim hasn’t been left without echoes in the scientific community, however. Peer review will certainly soon enough jump at this and come with their own mind at what constitutes a metal. Then there’s also the issue of other researchers having to replicate Erements and Troyan’s experiment, and only after they also reach the same results, will their claim be considered as fact. What’s important, however, is that the two, peer reviewal and credits aside, have managed to make hydrogen conduct electricity at room temperature. Nevermind turning into a full pledged metal, this is enough to prove that the most aboundant element in the Universe might be the best superconductor scientists have been looking for all this while.