But the quest to solve that clean energy puzzle continues.
Sciencedaily.com reports that scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a nickel-molybdenum-nitride catalyst to more cheaply crack hydrogen from water. Chemist Kotaro Sasaki is quoted as saying his team wanted to find a high-activity low-cost method of extracting hydrogen.
He says the catalyst "actually outperformed our expectations."
And according to globalenergyworld.com, Lynne Macaskie, professor of applied microbiology at the University of Birmingham in England, reports a method of creating hydrogen from food waste. "The bacteria can produce hydrogen," says Macaskie at a bioenergy workshop in São Paulo, Brazil. "At the moment manufacturers pay to dispose of waste, but with our technique they could convert it to clean electricity instead.”
Not ready for prime time
Impressive. So what's the hold-up? Why can't entrepreneurial ingenuity figure out a way to get a clean fuel on the market that could transform our skies and reduce the competitive pressures forcing up the price of gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuel?
The answer thus far has been cost and technology. Solve the dilemma and emission-free power remains a matter of infrastructure.
The benefits are many. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe and No. 3 on Earth.
However, the reality painted by this Pres. George W. Bush-era study remains relatively static.
"To be economically competitive with the present fossil fuel economy ... the cost of producing hydrogen must be lowered by a factor of 4." The study, Basic Research Needs for the Hydrogen Economy, published by Argonne National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy in May 2003, says the performance and reliability of hydrogen technology for transportation and other uses must be "improved dramatically."
The ultimate gamer's quest
Unless, of course, somebody figures out the game. Compare the challenge to one found in a video game, perhaps the most difficult ever, with multiple levels, constant attacks by impossible to kill opponents, no cheats and the most elusive final key in recorded history.
Carrying this analogy further, I introduce gaming expert Pyree, who posted this answer to the question of most impossible game on tomshardware.com forum: "So apparently the hardest game is this one called 'Dark Souls,' made by Japanese game studio From Software."
Pyree, whose alter ego appears to be Wall Street Journal reporter Ryan Kuo, says the game makes it simply impossible to avoid dying excessively and horribly. There is no way to save or pause the game and if your avatar dies, the level resets. "Only attempt it if you are the hardcorest of the hardcorest rpg gamer and love to take on a near impossible challenge," he says.
Dark Souls to clean energy
Whether or not hydrogen is the Dark Souls of the clean energy world, I don't know. But I do know it will take some serious smarts and tenacity to break the code, find all the clues and track down the ultimate treasure.
How close we're getting depends upon whom is asked. I posed the question to a guy I've gotten to know here in the San Joaquin Valley. His answer surprised me. "Getting close," he says.
How close? By the sounds of it, very. I may be providing an update to my series on the hydrogen highway quite soon. A hint is here in a post by Laurence O'Sullivan on suite101.com that says, "Combined together, wind and hydrogen can cancel out their inherent defects and be an effective tool in the battle against carbon dioxide and global warming."
Pulling onto the hydrogen highway
There is also activity on the corporate front. Mercedes-Benz recruited drivers like actress Diane Kruger to drive its electric fuel cell vehicle, the B-Class F-Cell in California. Kruger is one of more than 35 "environmental enthusiasts and early adopters" in the state. Kruger, who stars in "Farewell, My Queen," drives the rig, which converts compressed hydrogen into electricity to deliver a range of up to 240 miles and an average of 55 mpg equivalent while emitting only water vapor.
I also checked in on Bob Lazar, whose company, American Hydrogen Energy, is gearing up to produce kits that convert gasoline-burning automobiles to run on hydrogen. Lazar converted his 1994 Corvette to run on H2 produced by solar panels.
Lazar explains how it works this way: "The hydrogen gas is safely stored in a solid form (advanced metal hydride) and is in fact safer in a collision than your Gasoline tank. The only exhaust you get from burning Hydrogen as a fuel is water vapor (steam), with very small amounts of nitrogen oxides. It's about a 'green' a fuel as you can get."
Rare Earth complications
Yet Lazar has encountered trials. His latest has to do with source materials. He says in a recent update on his website that the conversion system is dependent upon rare Earth metals and compounds. The Chinese government's decision to limit export of the country's domestic supply means prices have skyrocketed and more than quadrupled the cost of his conversion kits.
China dominates the rare Earth market. U.S. deposits exist but remain mostly out of reach due to a lack of mining. The materials have names like lanthanum, cerium, yttrium and neodymium and also are used in the manufacture of electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.
China has spent the past several years locking up supply of these elements, planning ahead and banking on their value escalating.
"We are looking into all possibilities," Lazar says.
So the game continues. I'll drop in another quarter, and push "Ready Player One."
Photo: Actress Diane Kruger fills up her Mercedes B-Class F-Cell.
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