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Clean energy claim: Aluminum in your car tank

Purdue professor Jerry Woodall, center, and researchers Charles Allen and Jeffrey Ziebarth display hydrogen gas created by adding water to an alloy of aluminum and gallium.
Purdue professor Jerry Woodall, center, and researchers Charles Allen and Jeffrey Ziebarth display hydrogen gas created by adding water to an alloy of aluminum and gallium. David Umberger / Purdue News Service
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A Purdue University engineer and National Medal of Technology winner says he's ready and able to start a revolution in clean energy.

Professor Jerry Woodall and students have invented a way to use an aluminum alloy to extract hydrogen from water — a process that he thinks could replace gasoline as well as its pollutants and emissions tied to global warming.

But Woodall says there's one big hitch: "Egos" at the U.S. Department of Energy, a key funding source for energy research, "are holding up the revolution."

Woodall says the method makes it unnecessary to store or transport hydrogen — two major challenges in creating a hydrogen economy.

"The hydrogen is generated on demand, so you only produce as much as you need when you need it," he said in a statement released by Purdue this week.

So instead of having to fill up at a station, hydrogen would be made inside vehicles in tanks about the same size as today's gasoline tanks. An internal reaction in those tanks would create hydrogen from water and 350 pounds worth of special pellets.

"No extra room would be needed," Woodall said, "and the added weight would be the equivalent of an extra passenger, albeit a pretty large extra passenger."

The hydrogen would then power an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell stack.

"It's a simple matter to convert ordinary internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen," Woodall said. "All you have to do is replace the gasoline fuel injector with a hydrogen injector."

How it works
Here's how it all happens: Hydrogen is generated spontaneously when water is added to pellets of the alloy, which is made of aluminum and a metal called gallium.

"When water is added to the pellets, the aluminum in the solid alloy reacts because it has a strong attraction to the oxygen in the water," Woodall said. "No toxic fumes are produced."

This reaction splits the oxygen and hydrogen contained in water, releasing hydrogen in the process.

An electrical and computer engineering professor, Woodall first discovered the basic process while working as a researcher in the semiconductor industry in 1967.

"I was cleaning a crucible containing liquid alloys of gallium and aluminum," Woodall said. "When I added water to this alloy — talk about a discovery — there was a violent poof. I went to my office and worked out the reaction in a couple of hours to figure out what had happened. When aluminum atoms in the liquid alloy come into contact with water, they react, splitting the water and producing hydrogen and aluminum oxide."

That research led to advances in cell phones, solar cells, optical-fiber communications and light-emitting diodes, and earned Woodall the 2001 National Medal of Technology from President Bush.

In recent years, Woodall built a team of Purdue electrical, mechanical, chemical and aeronautical engineering students to fine-tune the process.

Cost speed bumps
The Purdue Research Foundation holds title to the primary patent. And a startup company, AlGalCo LLC, has received a license for the exclusive right to commercialize the process.

But there are some speed bumps on the highway to hydrogen.

With internal combustion engines, the cost of recycling the aluminum oxide must be reduced to make the process competitive with gasoline at $3 a gallon.

"Right now it costs more than $1 a pound to buy aluminum, and, at that price, you can't deliver a product at the equivalent of $3 per gallon of gasoline," Woodall said.

That cost could come way down, he figures, if the recycling is done with electricity from  nuclear power plants, wind turbines or even solar power plants if economically viable. The aluminum oxide and gallium would be shipped to such plants, using electrolysis to break the oxide back down to aluminum, Woodall said, "and we start the cycle all over again."

If used in fuel cells, the process would be economically competitive with gasoline, Woodall noted. "Using pure hydrogen, fuel cell systems run at an overall efficiency of 75 percent, compared to 40 percent using hydrogen extracted from fossil fuels and with 25 percent for internal combustion engines," Woodall said.

But the fuel cell systems themselves are still much more expensive and less reliable than internal combustion engines. "When and if fuel cells become economically viable, our method would compete with gasoline at $3 per gallon even if aluminum costs more than a dollar per pound," Woodall said.

Funding speed bump
For Woodall, the biggest speed bump lies elsewhere. "The egos of program managers at DOE are holding up the revolution," he told

"Remember that Einstein was a patent examiner and had no funding for his 1905 miracle year," Woodall added. "He did it on his own time. If he had been a professor at a university in the U.S. today and put in a proposal to develop the theory of special relativity it would have been summarily rejected.

"Likewise, since I won my National Medal of Technology for compound semiconductors and not making hydrogen, DOE does not recognize me as a member of the club." As evidence, Woodall said DOE last summer rejected two "pre-proposals" for funding, "i.e., I was not invited to send in full proposals on my work."

Patrick Davis, who heads the DOE hydrogen program, said he could not immediately comment. "We are in the middle of our annual program review (offsite, with 1000 attendees), so a vetted response through our press office is not possible until next week," he told in an e-mail.

Woodall said that his "bottom line" is that "it will take me a little longer to launch the revolution."

The Department of Energy on May 23 provided a response to Woodall's allegations: