Scientists Discover Cheap Hydrogen

  • The new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT (Photo courtesy of MIT and NSF)

We hear a lot about the coming
hydrogen economy. Hydrogen has a lot of
promise because it’s a clean burning gas.
But, for the most part, you have to burn
dirtier fossil fuels to make hydrogen.
Scientists can produce hydrogen from water.
But the process is expensive. Julie Grant
reports on new science that has researchers
buzzing:

Transcript

We hear a lot about the coming
hydrogen economy. Hydrogen has a lot of
promise because it’s a clean burning gas.
But, for the most part, you have to burn
dirtier fossil fuels to make hydrogen.
Scientists can produce hydrogen from water.
But the process is expensive. Julie Grant
reports on new science that has researchers
buzzing:

MIT researcher Daniel Nocera has found a cheaper way to get hydrogen
from water molecules. Researchers already have been able to do this – but
only with a precious metal – platinum. It costs nearly $2000 an ounce.

Nocera’s team discovered a material based on cobalt that does the same job.
Cobalt costs more like $2 an ounce.

James McCusker is an expert on solar energy conversion at Michigan State
University. He says the discovery has researchers excited.

“A, it works. But B, it works in such a way that it’s very, very easy to put
together. And it’s made of very inexpensive materials. They’re really
potential game changers in this field.”

McCusker says there’s still a lot of work left before we’re ready for a
hydrogen economy.

The new research was published in the journal Science.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Ethanol Part 2: Widening the Dead Zone?

  • Farmer Laura Krouse says the ethanol boom has been great for corn farmers, who she says are finally getting a fair price for their corn. But she says she's worried that there's not enough being done fast enough to reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Scientists are predicting the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will reach its largest size ever this summer. Fish and shrimp can’t survive in the Dead Zone. It’s believed to be mainly caused by fertilizer washed from farm fields across the nation. Rebecca Williams reports some scientists say demand for ethanol made from corn could make the Dead Zone even bigger:

Transcript

Scientists are predicting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will reach its largest size ever this summer. Fish and shrimp can’t survive in the dead zone. It’s believed to be mainly caused by fertilizer washed from farm fields across the nation. Rebecca Williams reports some scientists say demand for ethanol made from corn could make the dead zone even bigger:


(Sound of tractor raking hay)


“It’s the perfect Iowa day, you know?”


Laura Krouse is tearing apart a bale of hay to mulch her tomatoes.
She’s a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico. But she points out,
what happens on farms here ends up affecting life way down South:


“This watershed I live in drains 25% of Iowa. And we’re one of the
richest farming states in the nation – of course we have something to
do with it.”


By “it,” Krouse means the dead zone. All or parts of 31 farm states
drain into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf.
Scientists point to nitrogen fertilizer used on farm fields as the main
cause of the dead zone. All that nitrogen causes an enormous algae
bloom. When the algae dies it drops to the ocean floor. Bacteria eat
the algae and they rob the water of oxygen.


This summer, the dead zone’s predicted to reach a record size. It could get as big as the state of New Jersey.


Laura Krouse has been trying to cut back her own role in the dead zone.
Five years ago, she added something to her farm that’s rare around here.
Krouse cut some of the tile lines that drain water from her farm, and
replaced part of her farmland with a prairie wetland. She says that
made her neighbors nervous:


“We just don’t see people taking land out of production in Iowa very
frequently.”


Wetlands like this one remove nitrogen from the water that flows from
farm fields.


It’s one of the things a government task force on the dead zone
recommended to cut nitrogen loading into the Gulf.


But instead of a big push to restore wetlands, the economic landscape
is changing in the other direction. Demand for ethanol has led to
historically high corn prices. And that’s encouraging farmers to grow
more corn. A USDA report says farmers have planted 14 million more
acres of corn this year than last year. It’s the most corn planted in
the U.S. in more than 50 years.


Laura Krouse says this is not good for the Gulf of Mexico:


“I’m concerned about all the extra corn because it requires nitrogen to
produce that corn and no matter how careful we are and no matter how
expensive it is which causes us to be more and more careful with
application, nitrogen as a molecule just wants to get away. It is
leaky.”


When it rains, nitrogen runs quickly from farm fields and gets into
creeks and rivers. The federal government’s task force on the dead zone has been trying to
tackle all this.


Don Scavia led a group of scientists advising the task force under the
Clinton Administration. The Bush Administration convened a new science
panel to review the original science panel’s work. Don Scavia says
since then, there’s been very little progress in shrinking the dead
zone, or what scientists call an area of hypoxia:


“In fact what we’ve seen in the last year is just the opposite with
this push towards corn-based ethanol production. Even acres that were
set aside into conservation are coming back out into production, into
corn, and the increased nitrogen load to the Gulf this year and the projected record
hypoxia is probably caused by this increased corn production.”


Scavia says if the dead zone keeps increasing, the Gulf shrimping
industry could collapse.


Ironically, the new science panel appointed by the Bush White House is
calling for even bigger cuts in nitrogen than the first panel appointed
by the Clinton Administration. They want to reduce nitrogen from farm
fields and other sources by 40 to 45 percent.


Don Parrish is with the American Farm Bureau. He says those reductions
are too much:


“Those are going to be really difficult and they could cause
significant economic dislocation at a time when I think we need to be
thinking about the products that agriculture produces, and those are
important.”


There’s no question corn for ethanol is at the top of that list right
now. Ethanol’s popular. It’s making farmers richer. It’s making the
chemical companies that supply nitrogen richer. The government task
force has to figure out how to cut back on all the nitrogen that’s
needed to grow all the corn… that’s needed for billions of gallons of
ethanol.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Electrical Charges Zap Pollution

  • A worker samples polluted mud in a test pit. Researchers are trying to break down contaminants in the mud using electrical charges. A German company developed the technology, which U.S. officials hope will be cheaper than dredging polluted sediments. Photo courtesy of MPR.

One of the biggest challenges facing Great Lakes water quality comes from polluted harbors. Scores of underwater sites have been identified, but cleanup has been painfully slow. Now, some people are taking a new approach – they’re using an electrical charge to clean up pollutants. It’s the first test in this country of the system. Supporters say it’s cheaper and faster than conventional methods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports:

Transcript

One of the biggest challenges facing Great Lakes water quality comes from
polluted harbors. Scores of underwater sites have been identified, but
cleanup has been painfully slow. Now, some people are taking a new
approach – they’re using an electrical charge to clean up pollutants. It’s
the first test in this country of the system. Supporters say it’s cheaper
and faster than conventional methods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Bob Kelleher reports:


Stryker Bay is a lovely little cove alongside the St. Louis River, near Lake
Superior, in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a gentle water with ducks in the
summer; and a shady hiking path along the shore.


Tim Leland lives along the shore. From his home, he sees waterfowl, and
fouled water.


“Stryker Bay is a shallow bay. It’s six foot at the most of water.
But there’s a silt that’s underneath it, and all this tar and stuff that’s
coming up. Summertime there we do have a lot of oil that makes the surface
there.”


The bottom of Stryker Bay is a biological time bomb. Under the sand, are
pools of oily stuff – that experts call polynuclear aromatic-hydrocarbons,
or PAH’s. For nearly a century, Stryker Bay was an industrial sewer. PAH’s
were first identified under the bay in the 1970’s. That tar like stuff is
still there. There’s not enough money and little agreement how to get rid
of it.


But what if you could make pollution go away by throwing a switch? That’s
essentially what a German based company promises. And U.S. officials are
listening. The first underwater test in the United States of
Electrochemical-GeoOxidation treatment is underway in Duluth. And early
results show promise. It’s a simple concept, according to Ken Whittle with
Electro Petroleum Inc., who describes the process underway behind him in a
pair of water-filled pits.


“It’s a pretty simple kind of thing. If you want to look at it;
if you have a battery charger at home, you plug the battery charger in, you
take the two leads and you connect them to the terminals on a battery. Well,
that’s pretty analogous to what’s going on here.”


Each pit is filled with polluted mud and covered with water. Metal pipes
are sunken into the muck. In one pit, a carefully controlled electrical
charge pushes electrons through the sediment between the pipes. It’s
supposed to break the electron bonds of dangerous molecules; like PAH’s.
What’s left is harmless – like carbon and water.


The test is financed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers: the agency responsible for dredging shipping lanes.
Dealing with polluted sediment is a huge expense, according to Army Corps
researcher Tommy Myers.


“It’s a real big problem for us to dispose of that material. We
can’t put it back into the water. And, typically, we confine it in what we
call a confined disposal facility, and just store the material into
perpetuity and let it break down by natural processes, if it will.”


Officials would rather destroy pollutants than store them, but conventional
methods are expensive, smelly, and noisy. And they all require dredging,
and that’s expensive.


“In this particular technology, it wouldn’t necessarily require
dredging. There’s very little noise or gaseous emissions associated with
it. The main thing is it could be applied in situ; that means in the water,
without having to dredge.”


Proponents say Electrochemical-GeoOxidation is a bargain. Pollution
officials say conventional methods might cost as much as 200 dollars to
clean up a single cubic yard of sediment from Stryker Bay. But, according
to David Bowman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit, electrical
cleanup might cost a quarter of that.


“Our goal with this project was to find a technology that would
work for around one hundred dollars per cubic yard. The vendor talked about
that they might be able to treat material for around forty five to fifty
dollars per cubic yard at Duluth Harbor.”


And the contractor claims the process works fast. A typical site can be
cleaned in just a few months. It’s also supposed to work on metals, like
mercury, which attach to the electrodes, which can then be disposed of in a
hazardous waste facility.


In the Duluth test, PAH’s have decreased by forty five percent in about a
month. That’s promising, although far from conclusive. The process
won’t get every molecule, but it’s intended to reduce contaminants below
dangerous levels.


Tests began in Duluth this summer, but results are several months away.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.