Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Waste not, want not, say Pennsylvania State University scientists, who have taken a step toward the impossible dream for fans of hydrogen-powered cars.

Environmental engineer Bruce Logan has pioneered a process that coaxes usable hydrogen out of any wastewater - then cleans the water itself, the university announced Monday.

“This new process demonstrates, for the first time, that there is real potential to capture hydrogen for fuel from renewable sources for clean transportation,” Mr. Logan said.

He has plenty of raw material to draw from. The United States alone creates 33 billion gallons of wastewater from human, agricultural and industrial sources each year and spends $25 billion to treat it.

Interest in hydrogen fuel is keen.

President Bush has pledged $1.2 billion for a hydrogen fuel initiative to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and automakers Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and Mitsubishi have developed prototype hydrogen vehicles.

California, Florida and New York have hydrogen-powered public shuttle vehicles for airports and other sites, while experimental hydrogen-fuel stations are in the works in Florida and Vermont.

This is not the first time that wastewater previously deemed “useless” has paid off for the Penn State scientists.

Last year, Mr. Logan and a research team garnered global headlines after perfecting the microbial fuel cell (MFC) - a small plastic cylinder filled with muck from the settling pond of a sewage plant.

The MFC created an electrical current after bacteria caused the water to release electrons during the metabolization process. The process also cleaned the water.

Now Mr. Logan has figured out how to harvest hydrogen from the process as well.

His secret” It’s all in the zap. The bacteria in question receive a tiny jolt of electricity - a “power boost-” that inspires them to release four times as much hydrogen as they would under normal circumstances.

Animal-cruelty advocates need not worry, though.

The jolt measures about one-quarter of a volt, but enough to inspire the bacteria to “leap over the fermentation barrier and convert a ‘dead end’ fermentation product - acetic acid - into carbon dioxide and hydrogen,” according to the study.

The researchers have nicknamed their project “BEAMER,” short for “BioElectrochemically Assisted Microbial Reactor.” Energy efficient as well, the process uses about one-tenth of the voltage needed for electrolysis, which uses electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen.

The project was supported by the Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. A report will be published in Environmental Science and Technology, an industry journal.

“While there is likely insufficient waste biomass to sustain a global hydrogen economy, this form of renewable energy production may help offset the substantial costs of wastewater treatment as well as provide a contribution to nations able to harness hydrogen as an energy source,” Mr. Logan added.

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