Water-Based Energy May Make Food and Fossil-Based Fuels Unnecessary

Energy concerns top many American’s list of what worries them most. With gas prices at over $4 per gallon in many places, food prices soaring and the debate regarding food-based biofuels raging, it may seem difficult to see a way past the energy conundrum we find ourselves in. The answer to increasing America’s independence from oil pirates overseas may be found in the most abundant resource on earth: water. Until now, many have merely dreamed of engines that could split the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of water to create energy and release nothing but water back into the environment. Published in the August 22 issue of Science, Matthew Kanan and Daniel Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology address a new and efficient way to transform the dreams of engineers everywhere into a new and attainable reality1.

Energy can come from many sources. Fossil fuels are the most abundant and the most readily recognized by everyone. Unfortunately, they are also seen as a direct cause of pollution and several environmentally problematic consequences. Ethanol, from corn and sugarcane, is becoming an increasingly popular alternative2. However, many worry that we will convert too much agricultural land and crops to strictly energy-producing acreage. This is especially true since some already see conflicts between our food resources and a world where many are starving. Biodiesel is another alternative growing in popularity. Although more energy is obtained with this method than with corn ethanol, gasoline must still be used, and biodiesel uses the same ingredients needed to produce vegetable oil for cooking. Due to the prevalence of vegetable oil in our diet, only a small destabilization in supply can create a large increase in cost, making it too expensive to use for fuel2.

Problems such as these have led many scientists to strive for a way to use water as a fuel source. Water is abundant, environmentally friendly and a premium source of the hydrogen used to create hydrogen gas. Until recently, the only way to accomplish these goals was to use catalysts, which split the atoms of water molecules at an increased rate, though these were only active with ruthless chemicals and the very expensive platinum metal. Nocera and his colleagues, however, have finally found a catalyst which will allow water molecules to separate under environmentally-friendly conditions using cobalt and phosphorous which are both plentiful and inexpensive3. Although adjustments must be made before this technology can begin replacing current fuel sources, the future use and cost of this type of energy production could have a steep inverse relationship.

Ultimately, scientists would like to see a combination between solar power and splitting of the water molecule. If catalysts such as the one created by Nocera can be made for large-scale use, it could be possible to use seawater for the process3. This could circumvent the need to use fresh water or desalinize ocean water which could save money and allow the first ocean-based energy plants to be funded and erected sooner. Add to this, the possibility of using solar energy to drive the reaction and the overall cost of such a project could continue to decrease over time. This predicts, however, that the cost of alternative fuels will decrease as research increases. The expense will be forced to decrease if alternative methods are to be used since, in 2000, prices for wind and solar energy were two and 21 times as much coal, respectively5.

Even with this new method of separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, the amount of water necessary to fully replace fossil fuels is extreme. According to Nocera, it would require 1015, or 10,000 trillion, moles of water per year1. Fossil fuels provide the bulk of our energy at 95% which equaled 170 million barrels of oil per day in 20004. It is thought that oil from known deposits will continue to last for 42 years, natural gas 60 years and coal for over 200 years2. With these numbers, research such as Nocera’s is vital for a comfortable future.

Scientists aren’t the only ones to show concern over our current dependence on depleting resources. Congressman Tim Holden who is Chairman on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research has been noted as saying that “our energy demands are at a critical point6.” Congressman Frank Lucas went on to say, “Expansion of traditional forms of energy, such as oil, coal, and natural gas must be pursued alongside development of alternative and renewable sources6.”

In a written statement to the Subcommittee, Jetta Wong, a senior policy associate with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, noted that in 2007 transportation in the U.S. was “96% dependent on petroleum and consumed 70% of total U.S. petroleum demand7.” More importantly, 60% of this was imported. Making oil more expensive are the subsidies given to oil companies. Over the last 32 years, they have received more than $130 billion. This does nothing if not push alternative fuels more forcefully. It has even pushed the government, which on December 19, 2007, approved the Energy Independence and Security Act. The act called for “36 billion gallons of renewable fuel” in only 14 years. From this, 21 billion gallons is required to be biofuel based7.

As views shift away from reliance on foreign oil and other polluting fuel sources, research into alternative fuels is bound to grow. While many of the alternative fuels may not be able to replace fossil fuels singly, a combination of hydrogen power, wind, solar and perhaps even food-based resources might show enough efficiency and promise in the future to relieve the existing pressure on non-renewable energy sources.

1 – Kanan, Matthew and Daniel Nocera. In Situ Formation of an Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst in Neutral
Water Containing Phosphate and Co2+. Science 321 (5892), 1072-1075. August 22, 2008.

2 – Somerville, Chris. Primer: Biofuels. Current Biology 17 R115-R119. February 20, 2007.

3 – Service, Robert. New Catalyst Marks Major Step in the March Toward Hydrogen Fuel.
Science 321 (5889), 620. August 1, 2008.

4 – International Energy Annual 2001 Edition (EIA, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC, 2003).

5 – Commission of the European Communities, Green Paper Towards a European Strategy for the Security of Energy Supply. Commission of the European Communities, Brussels, 2000.

6 – Subcommittee Reviews Electricity Reliability in Rural Areas. News from the House Agriculture Committee. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, July 30, 2008.

7 – Written Testimony by Ms. Jetta Wong of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research. July 24, 2008.

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