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Steps toward sustainable energy: Efforts to advance hydrogen-based fuel technology

It’s no secret that petroleum is a finite resource. If that weren’t reason enough to develop alternative sources of fuel, we now know that burning oil for energy contributes to global warming — one of the most pressing issues facing society today.

Scottsdale-based alternative energy company ECOtality is attempting to commercialize a technology that could offer a viable alternative to fossil fuels for use in vehicles and for generating electricity. The company purchased the technology, a device called Hydrality, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which developed the device.

Hydrality produces hydrogen using magnesium and water, a process free of carbon-based fuels and therefore non-polluting.

ECOtality has turned to researchers at Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering to examine regeneration possibilities for magnesium oxide, the only byproduct created in the making of Hydrality aside from water.

Ed Hall, executive associate dean of research for the Engineering School, and Jerry Y.S. Lin, interim chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, are now a part of the company’s research team, which is partnering with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Task Force, Green Mountain Engineering and Airboss Aerospace.

“We are very excited about this project because it is in an area of national interest,” Lin says. “At ASU, we hope to lead the country in the areas of renewable energies and sustainability.”

Efficient and sustainable regeneration of magnesium oxide is important to making the technology successful as a viable alternative source of energy.

“As we begin introducing alternative energies to the world, it is very important that we have a solution that addresses the byproducts from energy creation,” says Hall, quoted in a ECOtality press release.

“We need to look at waste management — either regenerating the byproducts for further use, or developing ways to utilize the waste for other purposes — in a cost and energy efficient manner. Failure to do so will defeat the rationale for renewable energies,” Hall says.

Magnesium, in the Hydrality model, is used as a “carrier” of hydrogen. Once the hydrogen is produced for use in hydrogen fuel cells, the magnesium is emitted as magnesium oxide, Lin explains.

“Magnesium oxide itself can be used for various purposes, and ECOtality may explore those,” Lin says.

ASU’s research will look at ways to convert the byproduct back into its original solid state of magnesium, which could then be used again in the Hydrality production process.

Mikel Duke, a visiting scientist from the University of Queensland in Australia, and several engineering graduate students are also working on the project.

“This kind of industry-sponsored project will provide good hands-on training for students. They will learn new things and conduct research,” Lin says. “Ultimately, our mission is to educate students.”

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