Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Artificial Leaf

In this article, Jack Hitt discusses a new way to create energy, in a way that is similar to the process a tree would use to create energy.  This process uses light and water.  The creator of this source of energy has hopes that it will be in homes everywhere one day, helping homes become more energy efficient.  The whole idea is based off of photosynthesis, which everyone knows works to create energy/food for plants.  The process in more detail involves water that is exposed to light, a silicon strip is covered in catalysts which can break down the water so that on one side of the strip oxygen is bubbling up, and on the other hydrogen is being produced and then used as fuel.  The problem after that is what to do with the hydrogen.  A can of hydrogen won’t do anything; you need a fuel cell in order to actually utilize the hydrogen.  The problem ends up being that there isn’t enough technology available to the public that can actually use this new energy yet. There are a few auto companies that have developed hydrogen-powered vehicles but this is only the beginning.  Another concern is actually getting consumers prepared to use the new energy source. It isn’t like consumers are just buying fuel from a different company, since they have to change some patterns in their lives in order to use fuel cells.
This new energy has been under study for years already, but recently while researching ways to make it affordable and appealing to consumers, the natural gas and fracking business came into the picture. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas (harvested via fracking) but when it is there is also a CO2 byproduct. The artificial leaf does the same, minus the pollution factor.
Everything ultimately should come down to efficiency and whether or not it is economically feasible. Another article reviews the economics of the artificial leaf.  From a strictly environmental perspective there is a great benefit of using the leaf because it comes in just under the production of hydrogen from solar panels and electrolysis in price, $7 versus $6.50 per kilogram. However, obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels only costs $1-2 per kilogram.  If coming from a strictly economical perspective it is a wasteful idea.  Environmentally the hydrogen from fossil fuels has harmful byproducts, so it is possible that the externalities could make it not worth the saved money. Personally I think the leaf should be taken into consideration for the future, but also I think more effort needs to be placed on finding a way to cleanly utilize fossil fuel produced hydrogen as well.  If the government or some other private organization could find a way to efficiently and cheaply use the hydrogen produced from fracking then I think there could be a benefit.  This isn’t changing the creation of harmful byproducts, but maybe the extra hydrogen being used can prevent some coal from being used.
--Jessica Krebs

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