Postdoc proposes hydrogen-powered car

The University newcomer proposed that cars produce hydrogen from water.

JP Leider

Although it sounds like an episode of “The X-Files,” it’s just science.

Tareq Abu Hamed, a postdoctoral associate and newcomer to the University, has proposed a process that would allow cars to run on water – and the element boron.

The process is set to debut in the print edition of the Solar Energy Journal later this year.

The method would produce hydrogen on board a vehicle from reacting water with boron. As proposed, the system could recycle the used fuel for reuse with solar energy.

“This is still only at the research stage, and if we succeed it will be a very nice storage method for the hydrogen, which is now the main problem for hydrogen vehicles,” Abu Hamed said.

To drive a car about 300 miles, 11 pounds of hydrogen would be needed. About 40 pounds of boron would be necessary to generate that amount and it would be easier to store than pure hydrogen, according to Abu Hamed.

The fuel would occupy about the same space as a current gas tank, he said.

Boron would be used for its low weight and safety properties, he added.

Although Abu Hamed has yet to find funding for the project, the University is pursuing a similar method of producing hydrogen.

Professor Jane Davidson heads a $180,000 project that seeks to release hydrogen by reacting water with zinc, a project Abu Hamed works on.

Davidson said she is focused on the zinc project, although a proposal is being written for a boron-water project.

The proposal would suggest a collaborative effort between the University and the Weissman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, Abu Hamed’s alma mater.

The Weissman Institute would house the boron production system, and the University the hydrogen production step, possibly using the reactor currently used for the zinc project.

Davidson said the purpose of such projects is to develop techniques to use solar energy rather than fossil fuels.

“We’re trying to address the need for energy and the need for clean, sustainable energy and this is just one process to get there,” she said.

Patrick Serfass, director of program and technology development at the National Hydrogen Association, said “novel” production technologies like what Abu Hamed is proposing should be looked into, although on-board hydrogen production has not been well received by auto manufacturers.

In addition to hydrogen combustion in engines, study of hydrogen utilization in cars in the form of fuel cells, which use hydrogen to generate electricity, is also ongoing around the nation.

“One of the main advantages of hydrogen is you can produce it in a lot of different ways,” he said. “Our opportunities are endless in terms of how we can produce and use hydrogen.”

Although hydrogen use in vehicles purports to save energy and produce less waste, commercial success may not be visible in the short term.

Many alternative fuels, including ethanol, typically receive government subsidies.

When considering projects like what Abu Hamed proposes, it is important to define success, said Elizabeth Wilson, assistant professor of energy and environmental policy and law at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

“There’s lab success – can they get it to work and can this be a viable reaction and then there’s commercial success,” she said. “And they are pretty different.”

Wilson said that even if alternative technologies prove viable, it might be difficult and costly to alter the existing infrastructure.

“Inertia is a very strong force – once a technological system is in place, it’s difficult to dislodge it,” she said.