Samstag, 27. Dezember 2014

Is the Hydrogen age rising?

Hydrogen or Electricity

Hydrogen seems to be the perfect energy carrier. Everything from heating, moving with a car and chemical processing should be powered by hydrogen. The idea of the hydrogen age is quite old and dates back to 19th century, when the great science fiction writer Jule Verne published 1874 the idea, that in the future, hydrogen will power everything we need.
"And what will they burn instead of coal?"
"Water," replied Harding.
"Water!" cried Pencroft, "water as fuel for steamers and engines! water to heat water!"
"Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements," replied Cyrus Harding, " Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island , 1874 [1]
Hydrogen was used for the first time to fill balloons (Source: Wikipedia)

Why are we still in the electricity age?

Electricity seems to be one of the greatest innovations, mankind ever made. Electricity has some advantages, which other technologies do not even come close to. Let me list some of them:
  • Speed of light: Electricity travels with the speed of light, and can be transmitted theoretically within a tenth of a second around the globe
  • No mass transportation involved: To transport electricity, we don't need to build trucks, railways or ships, because there is no mass during transportation present
  • Almost no conversion loss: To convert electricity into mechanical energy there is almost no loss, the efficiency in a modern electric motor is significantly higher than 90%
  • Multiple applications: Motion, light, information processing, heat, chemical reaction, sound, and unlimited other applications can be driven by electricity
  • No emission: This is a statement about electricity itself, not about the production of electricity.
  • Simple distribution even to the smallest applications with simple wires
  • No risk of explosion
Although the list of advantages is impressive, there is a hard problem remaining with electricity, and this is storage!

We have seen 100 years of research, but only a limited number of efficient storage concepts for electricity are available. Bulk storage is covered by pumped hydro systems, converting electrical energy into gravitational potential energy with a high efficiency of 80% during a roundtrip. Pumped hydro is therefore the absolutely preferred technology, when large amounts (GWh) of grid power have to be stored, in simple words 99% of grid storage is pumped hydro based. 

Small amounts of electricity in mobile devices from smartphone up to electric vehicles are powered by batteries of different types, preferred Li-Ion batteries.

Here comes Hydrogen

Every new concept of energy carrier needs at least some advantages over the previous one. Hydrogen has a big advantage, it is a storage concept for energy by itself. 

One kilogram of hydrogen contains 33 kWh of energy, if it is converted to water and we use the oxygen of the air and don't count the weight of the air. This number is the highest for any chemical, this is three times more energy than one liter diesel contains. But there is a problem, hydrogen is the gas with the least density, useful for balloons and Zeppelins. One liter of hydrogen at normal pressure contains only 0,003 kWh of energy and this is, without any discussion, insufficient for any application.

There are three ways to enhance the energy density of hydrogen per volume:
  • Pressurize: Typical modern storage systems have 700 Bar pressure (1,5 kWh/l)
  • Liquidity: At a temperature of -252 °C hydrogen gets liquid (2,8 kWh/l)
  • Hide in metals: some metals suck up hydrogen in their crystal grid 
All these techniques ad some significant weight and cost to the hydrogen and in addition it costs some energy to reach the dense state of the hydrogen. Typical loss is about 10% of the energy by the pressurizatio or cooling process.

In summary, storage of hydrogen is expensive but not prohibitively expensive.

Conversion to Hydrogen 

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source as often cited. There is just no significant amount of free hydrogen on earth, so hydrogen has to be produced. The standard process of hydrogen production is steam reforming, using natural gas to produce hydrogen. This is by no means a sustainable solution.

To produce hydrogen for a sustainable energy future, it has to be produced with electricity from wind or solar sources. This is possible, but expensive. The core problem is, an electrolytic process, that disintegrates water molecules to hydrogen and oxygen by its very nature produces oxygen. We like oxygen for breathing, but metals don't, they imitatively corrode if oxygen and water are present. To get rid of this problem, we have to use noble metals like platinum or palladium and they are expensive.
Modern electrolytic cell for hydrogen production (Source: Wikipedia)
Another big problem is, the conversion of electricity energy into hydrogen comes not without losses. Depending on the details of the process, we end up at 20-30% loss of energy, a significant problem.

Distribution of Hydrogen

Transportation of hydrogen is preferably done by gas pipelines. A well known technology from natural gas, although not with the same efficiency, due to the very low density of the energy in even compressed hydrogen gas. Another problem is, hydrogen is a very small molecule that can travel even trough metal grids, so special care is necessary to use the right materials. 

Today, no country has a large hydrogen pipeline grid, resulting in the problem, it has to be built from scratch. And a pipeline grid is very expensive!

Using Hydrogen

At the end of the pipe, hydrogen has to be used in power consuming applications. The simple way to use it, is to burn hydrogen. It generates clean heat, only water is emitted into the air. Sounds perfect, but it doesn't make any sense, because using the electricity that generated the hydrogen could have been used in a radiator, this would be not only more energy efficient, it is also less dangerous.

Hydrogen engine in a BMW (source Wiki

Cars can use hydrogen as clean fuel. A slightly modified combustion engine can burn hydrogen, emitting water and some toxic nitrogen oxides, therefore we still need a catalyst at the exhaust pipe.
Another problem is the very low efficiency of a combustion engine, somewhere at 25% of the energy in the hydrogen reaches the road to accelerate the car. Resulting in a very low overall efficiency if we start with electricity. Compare this result to a Li-Ion battery, where about 90% of the energy reaches the road and as a bonus, we can reuse the energy when we brake to charge the battery again!

Another idea is, to convert the hydrogen back to electricity, whenever needed. This is possible, using a fuel cell. The sad thing about this part is, it comes again with high cost due to the expensive precious metals and with more loss of energy during conversion.

Is Hydrogen the Future?

Summing up all this points, today, an electric grid in combination with pumped hydro and batteries in mobile applications seems to be the better solution for the rising age of the renewable energy world.
But there is always research and no one can predict, if there is a breakthrough in technology. But this is not only true for hydrogen technologies, it is also true for batteries, pumped storage, e.g. the Hydraulic Rock Storage seems to be one, and many other technologies.  

Comment by Elon Musk to hydrogen

Confusing Hydrogen and Hydrogen

It should be mentioned, that there is a technology of nuclear fusion, using hydrogen to produce nuclear power. This path of research was not very promising till today, although a new interesting path, low energy nuclear reaction, commonly known as cold fusion might be a very disruptive technology, but this is another story.


[1] Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island, part 2, chapter 11, 1874

Freitag, 27. Juni 2014

Cold Fusion fake or fact

Cold Fusion  Fact or Fiction?

Cold Fusion (LENR) as a scientific problem

In 1989, there was next to the revolutions in Eastern Europe, an observation of Pones and Fleischmann that could extend far beyond the date. Excess heat at a palladium cathode was created and interpreted as a sign of the energy release resulting from the fusion of deuterium. This observation was announced on March 23, 1989 in a press conference. 

Why is this observation of such importance

At least since the droppings of the atomic bombs everyone knows that nuclear energy can release extremely large amounts of energy and can also be destructive. In the "Atoms for Peace" speech by President D.D. Eisenhower, a research program was initiated to construct nuclear reactors to produce energy from uranium in large quantities. Ultimately, this technology has significant side effects, particularly long-lasting results, radioactive substances (final storage), the reactor may melt (worst case scenario) and the technology is suitable in principle for the development of nuclear weapons (proliferation). Therefore, the development of nuclear energy in the version of nuclear fission has come to an almost complete stop.
Wendelstein 7 experiment in Germany using temperatures above 10 million °C to analyse "hot" fusion.
The energy of the atomic nuclei can also by fusing of hydrogen, specifically deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, release extraordinarily much energy. The waste product is helium, a completely harmless gas. Science is trying hard to produce nuclear fusion for over fifty years, unfortunately so far without visible success. The main problems lie in the extremely high temperature, several 10 million degrees Celsius, the elaborate reactor construction with considerable problems by neutrons and thus radioactivity as well as problems of energy, if it ever occurs, because the dissipate process is far from easy.
The absolute silver bullet would be a catalyst that merges two deuterium atoms into helium, thereby releasing heat energy, but not emitting radioactive radiation. Just that would be cold nuclear fusion, the perfect power source. Since deuterium is present in very larger amounts in normal water, there are no resource problems, no waste problems, no size limitation of the reactors. A range from a few watts to gigawatts could be possible, thus the perfect power source!
With such a power source all the classic energy sources from coal to oil as well as wind and solar energy would no longer be necessary. Including the infrastructure such as power grids, gas stations, storage and the like. 

The observation problem

Modern science is based on a simple principle, someone makes a discovery, publishes this discovery, others reconstruct the experiment and confirm or refute the observation. In the case of cold fusion, the sequence is unfortunately difficult. This is due to a fact that scientists Pones and Fleischmann did not take the traditional route to publication, they have chosen the path of a press conference. That did leave the taste of dubious at least.
In the second phase, the experiment was even by Pones and Fleischmann not direct reproducible. There is a lack of, at least at that time, the expected neutron radiation and in particular the generation of heat. Within a few months the topic was done and could actually disappear in the archives of science.
A particular problem was, that the Department of Energy (DOE) described in a report [in the fall of 1989, 1]
" Others, however, report excess heat production and either no fusion products or fusion products at a level well below that implied by reported heat production."  
The interesting part of that sentence is, that heat production was found, but the theoretical explanation was not possible, suggesting, that the fact of heat production did not exist. This is a curious situation in science, that some experiments, not aligned with the current theory are rejected simply by the result! 
The DOE continues with "... Hence, we recommend against the establishment of special programs or research centers to develop cold fusion...", sorry, the results are against the current theory, we don't fund such stuff.
It is a deep problem of science, on the one hand one can never disprove an experiment, due to open problems in using the exact same material and procedure, it can only be show that it is reproduce able in the best case. This corresponds, in a modification, to the Popper's principle, that, while falsify is simple, verification is in theory impossible.

Why Cold Fusion should be impossible

The nuclear physics and solid state physics, both based on quantum mechanics, are well-developed theories of physics. 
The following facts play an important role for the evaluation of cold nuclear fusion.
  1. Atomic nuclei are positively charged and therefore repel each other. For a fusion these rejection needs to be overcome, using a energy corresponding to a temperature of about 100 million degrees. 
  2. With the fusion of deuterium to helium energy of 27 MeV, emitted as a gamma ray, should be visible. Such a radiation has never been observed.
  3. Chemical catalysts can lower the energy barrier, but the changes are in the range of chemical bonding forces, these are a million times smaller than the nuclear forces.
The behavior of matter, especially in crystals, is anything but easy to understand. Again and again, effects that are not expected surprise physicists. As two examples out of many, I will introduce the Mössbauer effect and the discovery of high-temperature superconductor. In the Mössbauer effect, a gamma decay of the atomic nucleus happens, the momentum is directly released into the crystal lattice, one would have expected that the atomic nucleus flies away, taking the momentum with it. Rudolf Mössbauer, the discoverer of the effect, found a theoretical description that explains the effect. 
High temperature superconductors are far above the temperature, described by the theoretical limit of the well known BCS theory, without electrical resistance. The exact reason is unfortunately still not fully understood.

Observed facts

helium development

Notably, the observation of cold fusion begins in 1926! The German scientist Fritz Paneth and Kurt Peters report on the transformation of hydrogen with the aid of a palladium catalyst to form helium [3].They go very well into the questions of possible error sources and also calculate the heat.
The first observation of cold fusion back in the year 1926 [3]
They also investigate whether there is radioactive radiation which is not proved successfully. It should be noted that this was done prior to the establishment of the quantum mechanics. Due to the small amount of helium, 10E-7 cc, economical conversion to helium production is not pursued. This article is so far harmless, since he obviously has no interests other than purely scientific reporting.


Leaving the experiment of pones and Fleischmann first unconsidered, we found in the literature numerous indications where palladium cathodes together with deuterium release a surprising excess heat. I quote from the report of the European Commission: "The main task was to demonstrate, on the basis of signals well above the measurement uncertainties and with a cross check, the existence of the excess of heat production during electrochemical loading of deuterium in palladium cathodes. The target was achieved and the existence of the effect is no longer in doubt." [2] emphasis added by author. This statement is very remarkable, in particular it is clear that there is definitely an excess of heat. The source of the heat, due to the amount far beyond any known chemical reaction, can only be from nuclear origin.

material ejection

The occurrence of material ejection in palladium, which is loaded with deuterium, is another strange observation [4]. An examination under the electron microscope of a palladium cathode, as Jacques Ruer has analysed when it came to unusual heat, shows clearly small craters. See picture.
Five micrometer crater in palladium, what generated this artefact? [4]

How do these craters exactly develop is unclear, an estimate in his article suggests selective high heat up to temperatures beyond 20,000 °C. It is very difficult to imagine an effect that is based on chemical reaction to produce such a local high energy density. 


The observation of neutrons is a notoriously difficult problem, because neutrons are neutral and therefore do not cause ionization. To observe neutrons, one must observe a nuclear reaction of neutrons. For example, a carbon-12 nucleus decays into three alpha particles by capture of a neutron. There are special detector substances, such as CR-39 doing this.
Detected neutrons in a cold fusion experiment. Source: P.A. Mosier Boss [5]

PA Mosier-Boss has a CR-39 detector mounted on a palladium cathode and observed after two weeks, several neutrons with an energy above 9.6 MeV [5]. This can be seen in the graph above: You always see a point, from where three "lobes" emerge, these are the three alpha-particles. The two left columns are from an experiment of cold nuclear fusion, the two right-hand columns show the same detector substance as measured in a well known neutron source. Obviously no difference can be seen between cold fusion neutrons and "normal" neutrons. However, the neutron flux is extremely low, this can only be a sub-branch of the reaction.

Problems for physics

Following the previous observations, and I find it very difficult to stamp all those experiments with the simple word "fraud", there is obviously a phenomenon that is not understood to date.
This is by no means unusual in physics, as already indicated, the high-temperature superconductivity (HTSC), or the exact way in which a lithium battery works, are not fully understood. Noteworthy is the surprising resistance of scientists over this discovery. Why accept the reference magazines nature and science no paper which report cold nuclear fusion experiments and deliver positive results? Negative results are regularly adopted.
For a research program, it would be important to clarify the key question, how are the reaction details of cold fusion. With today's technical resources, it was possible to prove the Higgs particle, I find it very hard to believe that this could not quickly succeed in the area of cold fusion, if sufficient resources are provided. 
There are now some good theoretical approaches, such as Peter Hagelstein at MIT who tried to clarify the energy transfer of 27 MeV in the crystal lattice. Those who are interested, view MIT Colloquium ColdFusion / LENR IAP  online (Note the list of speakers).


After a review of the raw material prices, I noticed that the palladium price increases regardless of the gold and platinum prices for some time. As an explanation, I suggest, the reason could be that some hard facts for cold nuclear fusion were encountered. Refer to blog post (German).
The price of palladium, red line, is now decoupled from gold and platin prices. source: 

Being a very skeptical scientist, I read some papers on the subject available to me and I am now convinced that the phenomenon of low temperature nuclear reaction (LTNR) exists. 
However, this means that the global power supply can potentially take a completely different direction in the near future, as we all have previously believed. 
I want to take this opportunity deliberately not to spread too much euphoria, since many aspects are unclear:

  • Is it possible to build inexpensive palladium reactors?
  • If the catalyst is so rapidly destroyed (cratering) that a deployment is ultimately uneconomical?
  • Are there companies aware of the development and try to slow down the cold fusion developement? 
Obviously there is a massive need for research, as many questions remain unanswered and the potential benefit in the success would be almost immeasurable. 

Notice: Who holds the opposite opinion, can read the contribution of publicly funded Germany Radio. You can find the article here . There are surprisingly many informations from the year 1989, although it was presented in 2014, why did they not address the current state of research, this remains a mystery to me.


[2] European Comission, Materials for Emerging  Energy Technologies , 2012, page 23
[3] Fritz Paneth and Kurt Peters (1926). " About the transformation of hydrogen into helium . " Natural Sciences 14 (43): 956-962.
[4] Jacques Ruer,  Simulation of Crater Formation on Surfaces LENR Cathodes , J. Condensed Matter Nucl. Sci. 12 (2013) 54-68