One of my recent Clean Break columns looks at attempts to lower the cost of hydrogen production, with specific reference to a project at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. UOIT professors Greg Naterer and Ibrahim Dincer are attempting to building a machine that can create hydrogen from sunlight and water by simulating photosynthesis, an approach based on research conducted at Virginia Tech. Researchers there, led by Professor Karen Brewer, have developed a super molecule that acts as a photocatalyst. When sunlight is shined on water containing this catalyst, it breaks the hydrogen-oxygen bond and releases the hydrogen for collection. Photocatalysts offer a low-energy approach to breaking this H20 bond, compared to steam-methane reforming or electrolysis, but the problem with past efforts is that the catalysts were consumed in the process. This creates the need for a constant supply of catalyst, which can become costly. The photocatalyst developed by Brewer’s team is not consumed — it can be recycled over and over again, which is why the approach shows so much promise. It has been demonstrated to work in the lab, now UOIT has been charged with building a prototype machine that can demonstrate the technology at scale. It has received $900,000 in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Toronto-based Phoenix Canada Oil Co., which owns the rights to Virginia Tech’s technology. For more detail check out the article.

There are many efforts to turn the sun’s energy into fuel — such as hydrogen, syngas, etc. – and the U.S. Department of Energy recently committed $122 million toward such research. Indeed, Professor Daniel Nocera at MIT has been leading the charge, and is now involved with a company called Sun Catalytix which is aiming to commercialize a process invented by Nocera. If we can figure out how to produce large amounts of hydrogen in a clean and low-cost way it can lead to affordable energy storage and, some day, even fuel for transportation.

I got into a little exchange with Prof. Naterer about the potential for hydrogen-powered transportation. In my column I wrote that “Hydrogen-powered cars might not be in the cards for the next two or three decades.” This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not. Figuring out how to produce hydrogen in a clean and low-cost way is only one of several challenges. There are still massive infrastructure challenges associated with hydrogen-powered transportation, and given that we’re moving rapidly toward battery-powered vehicles I don’t see hydrogen cars coming in the foreseeable future. Naterer took issue with this comment. “Unfortunately this misinformation sets back efforts of many institutions, companies and organizations that are trying to facilitate the promising clean energy carrier of the future for the benefit of future generations and our planet,” he wrote me in an e-mail. He cited Honda and others promising much larger mass production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2015 “at ranges much longer and prices much lower than most anticipate.” The problem is, we’ve heard that promise before — several times in fact. The date keeps getting pushed ahead by five years. Didn’t we hear this in the late 1990s from Ballard Power? I explained my skepticism to Naterer, who replied: “Once a clean, cheap supply of hydrogen becomes available, the whole situation with hydrogen changes. When the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen becomes lower than a gallon of gasoline, the paradigm shift will occur.”

Certainly, that turning point will happen, but I don’t think the transition will be so quick. In the words of Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba professor who has become one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors on energy issues, “Wishful thinking, pioneering enthusiasm, and belief in the efficacy of seemingly superior solutions are not enough to change the fundamental nature of gradually unfolding energy transitions, be they shifts to new fuels, to new modes of electricity generation, or to new prime movers.”

I see low-cost, clean hydrogen production first having an impact on industry and power generation (storage) before having a measurable impact on transportation.