In a few years, we could be seeing hydrogen fueled cars, public mini-buses and other vehicles on African roads, running with nothing more than water in their fuel tanks. That was one possibility that came to mind upon reading David Adam's interesting piece "A fuel tank full of water" (New Scientist, July 29, 2006). He reports that Tareq Abu-Hamed of the University of Minnesota, and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel have developed a practical approach to producing hydrogen from water. This approach, which relies on simple, high-school chemistry (as decribed below), overcomes "many of the obstacles that till now have prevented the dream of a hydrogen-powered car becoming reality:"
Producing hydrogen by conventional industrial means is expensive, inefficient and often polluting. Then there are the problems of storing and transporting hydrogen. The pressure tanks required to hold usable quantities of the fuel are heavy and cumbersome, which restricts the car's performance and range.
These obstacles have long been used to justify the widely held view that the infrastructure for hydrogen production, storage, transportation and use is simply too expensive and high-tech for African countries to handle. Infact, using phrases and terms like "hydrogen fueled cars" and "Africa" in the same sentence seems outright daft or dangerously far from the safety of normal thinking boxes. Eyebrows are often raised at meetings where these words are mentioned in the same breath. Therefore discussions of the 'hydrogen-economy of the future' have tended to be shaped by the assumption that the industrialized countries will lead the way, creating the needed technologies which will eventually make their way to African and other developing countries. The problem with this arrangement is that the baseline situation in industrialized countries--and not the needs of people in developing countries--has tended to dictate the pace and direction of the hydrogen-economy movement. For example, the current objective of hydrogen-power programs in many industrialized countries is to produce vehicles running on compressed hydrogen because filling stations that supply it already exist in those countries. But the majority of African and other developing countries do not have filling stations for compressed hydrogen, so whatever technology is being developed will be irrelevant to their immediate situations and needs.
So how could the work of Abu-Hamed and his colleagues help change that?
- First, their work demonstrates that hydrogen can be produced using relatively simple and low cost technologies, effectively bypassing the complicated and expensive infrastructure (including facilities for distribution of compressed hydrogen) that African countries presently lack. As technology becomes less and less of a problem, one can envisage African hydrogen energy programs that focus more on creating forward-looking policies, regulations and financing mechanisms to support the growth of local hydrogen fuel production sectors. Such incentives could be targeted primarily at local entrepreneurs, enabling them to build and operate the necessary plant and equipment.
- In addition to removing the technological barriers that have long hampered developments on the supply side of the hydrogen energy equation, Abu-Hamed's system (and similar innovations) will almost certainly induce or catalyze innovations on the demand side, in the form of hydrogen-powered engines and vehicles. In the short term, much of this development is likely to be led by the foreign manufacturers that currently supply African and other developing country markets. Already, the Japanese company Samsung has built a prototype scooter that relies on hydrogen generated from water. One can envisage a longer term scenario where hydrogen-powered engines and vehicles are produced by local manufacturing companies (perhaps in joint ventures with foreign investors).
The essence of the Abu-Hamed system is the production of hydrogen via the reaction of water with the element boron. The hydrogen so generated can be burnt in an internal combustion engine or fed to a fuel cell to generate electricity. An important aim of Abu-Hamed's work is to produce the hydrogen on-board at a rate matching the demand of the car engine. This hydrogen-on-demand approach is "based on some simple high-school chemistry:
Elements like sodium and potassium are well known for their violent reactions with water, tearing hydrogen from its stable union with oxygen. Boron does the same, but at a more manageable pace. It requires no special containment, and atom for atom it's a light material. When all the boron is used up, the boron oxide that remains can be reprocessed and recycled.
The use of boron greatly facilitates the transportation and storage of hydrogen. What's more, Abu-Hamed envisages the reprocessing of the boron to be accomplished in a solar-powered plant that is completely emission-free, as illustrated below:
Besides removing the need for costly hydrogen pipelines and distribution infrastructure, Abu-Hamed's method would also make hydrogen vehicles safer. Citing Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress, David Adam observes that a "...car that doesn't need to carry tanks of flammable, volatile liquid or compressed gas would be much less vulnerable in an accident." It also potentially offsets the requirements for building up a massive hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure.
The emergence of simple and cheap ways of producing and using hydrogen as a fuel offers African countries a new opportunity to leap-frog beyond petrol to hydrogen as a cleaner fuel for cars, motorbikes and boats. Perhaps, if Abu-Hamed's hydrogen system--and its implications for Africa--gets the attention it deserves, fewer eyebrows might be raised when the idea of "hydrogen-power for sustainable transport in Africa" is mentioned at national and international meetings on the subject of sustainable transport.