Gas prices are increasing, we are over peak oil and there is no relief in sight. Many have serious concerns about global warming. We are told that there is no answer to these issues and that any solution is many years away and will require billions in research dollars. The world economy is stagnating. Whatever happened to the Hydrogen Economy that was supposed to deliver us from this situation? That is the bad news.
The good news is that there is an answer and it is available now. It is the Nitro-Hydrogen Economy. Researchers at Texas Tech University have come up with five new pieces of technology which together promise to remove our dependence on foreign oil, greatly reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions, provide us with Carbon-free $0.80/gal liquid fuel and fertilizer made at point of sale or use and move our transportation system to largely renewable resources. Best of all, we can do this rapidly without huge investments in infrastructure or research, or requiring a total changeover in our vehicle fleets. All this while providing much needed economic stimulus.
Too good to be true? Let us explain:
First, they have made a very low-cost compact electrolyzer capable of making Hydrogen at $2.80/kg from 5 cents/kWh Electricity. That is well below the cost achievable by other electrolyzers and even below the cost of Hydrogen from steam reforming of natural gas. While the efficiency of this electrolyzer is above 70% the real benefit is in its simplicity which makes its capital cost at least 50 times lower than that of conventional electrolyzers. That technology is proven, and the pre-production prototype is complete and is available for commercial investment.
Great, that gets you cheap Hydrogen, but we all know that Hydrogen can be explosive and difficult to transport and store, especially on-board vehicles. To set up an economy based on Hydrogen would require the investment of trillions of dollars in infrastructure and a complete turnover of our vehicle fleets. Those vehicles would be expensive and have reduced range. In practical terms, a liquid fuel is needed for vehicles: gaseous fuels such as natural gas have been tried and found wanting, and the thought of shoveling solids in and out of a vehicle does not bear thinking about.
The researchers have come up with a way of making Hydrogen into liquid fuel using Ammonia as the carrier for Hydrogen by using a variant of the traditional Haber process. Fritz Haber was awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for the original Ammonia process which has now been in widespread use for a century, making Ammonia the number one industrial chemical used on Earth, after Hydrocarbons. It is not widely known that Ammonia is useful as a vehicle fuel as well as a fertilizer- well over 100 million metric tons are used annually. Actually it has been used for this purpose since World War II. However, Ammonia is made in large-scale industrial plants and, although the idea of using it as a vehicle fuel is not new, it has proven to be impractical and uneconomic to transport it via pipe or tanker for use in vehicles.
The Haber process is exothermic, but traditional plants are unable to utilize the low-grade heat given off. The TTU researchers have found a way of harnessing this heat and using it to drive the process. The resulting method lends itself to making Ammonia on a local scale: A unit the size of a standard shipping container at your local filling station or farm will provide all the fuel and fertilizer needed, more efficiently and at significantly lower cost than Ammonia from the big central plants.
Thus Hydrogen (i.e. Protons) is effectively transported via the electric grid system as electrons and then converted into liquid fuel and fertilizer where it is needed. Even better, this liquid fuel plant can be controlled remotely and used to balance the grid and provide much needed storage for renewable resources such as wind, solar and tidal generators, increasing their utilization by 30%.
Better yet, calculations show that by using the difference between peak load (which the grid and power generation is sized for) and average load, sufficient fuel can be produced to provide in excess of 75% of a nation’s gasoline based transportation requirements when it is used in efficient engines. So, no new infrastructure is required: merely the efficient use of our existing infrastructure. Effectively, Nitrogen is used just as a carrier to fix the Hydrogen and convert it to a useable liquid fuel, but one that gives rise to a new economic system- hence the term the Nitro-Hydrogen Economy.
Some will say “but Ammonia is toxic”. Yes, but the allowable limits for exposure given by the NIOSH is 35 ppm for 15 minutes and NIOSH records that exposure to gas at 1720 ppm (0.1% atmosphere) produces coughing and exposure at this level must be avoided. That is a very high concentration compared to many other toxic substances-for example Carbon Monoxide or gasoline itself. Also, Ammonia is lighter than air and disperses readily (unlike LPG); it is very hard to ignite – NFPA classes it as “a slight fire hazard” (unlike Petroleum products and Natural Gas), is not a carcinogen and is readily soluble in water (unlike petrochemicals). It smells terrible, but that in itself is a built in leak warning. The human body has natural ways of discarding Ammonia, so there are no long term issues. We are well used to handling large quantities of Ammonia and have well established rules and protocols for this, and the OSHA summary of incidents shows that these are working, with a total of only 224 accidents over a 22 year period. In fact our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have been using it as a kitchen cleaner for over a century.
To allow use in existing vehicles, the researchers have come up with a two fold plan to use the fuel. It is possible to blend the fuel with existing gasoline and diesel, very much the same as is done with ethanol at present. In the US most consumers use an E10 (10%) blend at the pump without problems, and it is a relatively simple matter to go to an A10 blend. Getting to an A85 (85% Ammonia) blend in existing engines, however, requires a change to a conformal fuel tank (i.e., a tank that conforms to the available space in the vehicle) that allows storage of Ammonia at low pressures. A change to the engine programming is also required similar to that used in existing flex fuel vehicles.
Of course, none of this changes the efficiency of use in Internal Combustion engines. These at best have a thermal efficiency of approximately 35%, which by the time you get that power to the wheels reduces to about 20%. When you allow for the fact that vehicles are never operated at their point of maximum efficiency, most studies show that the overall efficiency is only about 11-12%.
So the researchers have come up with a new engine which promises to perform at the same overall efficiencies as battery-electric vehicles but provide real horsepower without the cost, life, weight, physical size, environmental and precious metal problems of batteries.
The IC Engine has been around for a long time, so surely such a big improvement is impossible? Not so, say the researchers, and their idea is soundly based on thermodynamics. Internal Combustion engines have a direct relationship between compression ratio and efficiency: the higher the compression ratio, the higher the efficiency. If the compression ratio is increased too much, you get detonation (used in diesel engines for ignition) or pre-ignition (pinging) in gasoline engines. If this is too violent it tries to drive the piston backwards and will destroy the engine. So, there are limits on the maximum allowable compression ratios. But what if you do not inject any fuel before you want it to detonate? Thanks to the advent of piezo-electric injectors which can inject fuel in 0.3 milliseconds or less, this is now possible, giving rise to a new class of IC engine: the Controlled Detonation Compression Ignition Engine. In these engines fuel detonates as it is injected and after all the compression has taken place so there is no longer any fuel to detonate during compression, and so there are no limits placed on compression by the fuel. This allows vast increases in compression ratio and engine efficiency. Fuel Octane and Cetane ratings become meaningless. Better yet, the researchers have come up with a unique design of engine which converts all the energy to electricity by directly connecting a linear electric generator to the piston, thus eliminating the crankshaft, camshaft, transmission, rear axle, alternator, starter motor, and even the cooling system. Again, this idea is not new, but the researchers have several new innovations that make it a practical proposition. The researchers’ models also show that such a massive reduction in weight (and cost) gives rise to engines with a power-to-weight ratio 8 times that of existing IC Engines. That gives a tremendous improvement in range, economy and greatly reduces the cost of vehicles.
Not content with that they are also developing a completely new process for the manufacture of Nitric Acid and Ammonium Nitrate directly from Nitrogen and the leftover Oxygen provided by the electrolyzers.
Now we have a way to deal with Global Warming and Hydrocarbon use while at the same time substantially aiding our economic recovery. While these technologies are new and innovative, they are nevertheless practically based on known science and technology and do not require huge research dollars, nor will they take a long time to implement. No one of these technologies alone can do the job; it is their combination that gives rise to this new paradigm.
Where to from here? Texas Tech has applications for federal funding in progress to finish the development and provide pilot plants: after all, where better to spend Federal Taxpayer R&D dollars than in a here-and-now solution which has already been thoroughly researched? There is also issued and pending IP, and several pieces of the technology are ready for commercialization. They are presently exploring the opportunities this offers to potential investors.