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Power Science

A New Way To Make Water, And Fuel Cells 107

Roland Piquepaille writes "You probably know that it is easy to combine hydrogen and oxygen to make water. After all, this chemical reaction is known for more than two centuries. But now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have discovered a new way to make water. As states the UIUC report, 'not only can they make water from unlikely starting materials, such as alcohols, their work could also lead to better catalysts and less expensive fuel cells.' But be warned: don't read the technical paper itself. It could win an obfuscated contest — if such a contest existed for scientific papers." Yet another advance in fuel cell technology; we discussed a different one just the other day.
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A New Way To Make Water, And Fuel Cells

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  • by doyoulikeworms ( 1094003 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @04:50PM (#21226133)
    Shouldn't it be the other way around?
  • by noidentity ( 188756 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @04:51PM (#21226141)

    But be warned: don't read the technical paper itself. It could win an obfuscated contest -- if such a contest existed for scientific papers.

    An obfuscated contest or a contest for obfuscation? The fomer would be difficult to figure out, while the latter would reward entries that are difficult to figure out.

    • But be warned: don't read the technical paper itself. It could win an obfuscated contest -- if such a contest existed for scientific papers.

      An obfuscated contest or a contest for obfuscation? The fomer would be difficult to figure out, while the latter would reward entries that are difficult to figure out.

      So that would be a Perl contest with government funding rules then?
    • Reading the post, I already felt thoroughly obfusced. Reminds me of the timy my fsck obfsck'd by hard drive and it all turned to water.
  • Pet Peeve: UIUC (Score:4, Informative)

    by Bill, Shooter of Bul ( 629286 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @04:55PM (#21226167) Journal
    No one in the state calls it UIUC, except for University of Illinois at Chicago students and alumni who get upset when you call it U of I. Every one else just calls it Illinois. It confuses everyone else when its referred to as UIUC.
    • Re:Pet Peeve: UIUC (Score:5, Informative)

      by djcapelis ( 587616 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:09PM (#21226257) Homepage
      Actually "everyone else" might just be defined to be people who aren't in your state... last I checked there were more people not from Illinois than those from Illinois. (And if you have to pick a segment to confuse, I'd think you'd want to pick the ones who are near the place and can probably figure it out.)

      Good to know either way, but whether you like it or not, the majority of folks know it best as UIUC. Sorry that you're so well known and all. :)

      Also, if they don't want to be known as UIUC, perhaps a change of domain name is in order...
    • by Hesperus ( 16733 )
      Uh.. I call it UIUC. For what it's worth my wife grew up in Urbana, and her brother is a physics student living in Champaign (I prefer Champaign myself). Still when we are visiting I tend to say "we're going to Chambana".
  • How valid is their conclusion? Is there an expert here on Slashdot that can offer some insight, because this does sound like a huge discovery.
    • Well, here's an actual link to the paper if someone wants to actually read it: Homogeneous Catalytic Reduction of Dioxygen Using Transfer Hydrogenation Catalysts []. Unfortunately, they don't let anyone read more than the abstract without an account or paying $25.

      I'm a little offended by the suggestion not to read the paper because it's too confusing. But then, it's not like we can read it anyways without jumping through a bunch of hoops and paying unreasonable sums of money.

      • I thought I read in the article that the study was funded by the US Department of Energy. Since which is a public research project funded by the US government at a state university kept under a $25 key? I thought the usual stipulation of government grants for research at universities like this, that the results be made freely available to the public. That's why we're paying for them.

        Where this some small corporation I might be tempted to scream hoax or fraud when you made a broad claim, try to dissuade p
        • by Seedy2 ( 126078 )
          Well, they submit the paper for publication, the published get to do what they want as far as controlling access to their publication.
          And there are frequently stipulations about where/when else you can publish a paper when you get one accepted by a journal.
        • by Seedy2 ( 126078 )
          For any other Chem heads out there that were puzzled by Cp*IrH (since Cp isn't an element) there's a wiki at* []
    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      It appears that Roland has just seen some stuff about chemistry that he finds very exciting but doesn't understand well enough to explain, similar to the articles on materials and thermodynamics of his that have been linked to here with sometimes spectacular conclusions that are unfortunatly wrong. A lot of reactions with hydrocarbons and oxygen result in some water.

      Lets' all chip in an get Roland and Zonk some second hand textbooks so they can write about the spectacular stuff as it is without inflating i

    • For anyone who reads the chemical literature regularly, this is a not very interesting reaction, but they've managed to get some press by using a catchy title to lure those not well-versed in oxidation chemistry. The noble metal-catalyzed oxidation of alcohols by oxygen is a well-known reaction. Most noble metal salts or noble metals embedded on carbon or silica will mediate the same reaction. In fact, the reaction described is often an undesired side reaction in other metal-catalyzed processes. It's amazin
  • sigh (Score:5, Informative)

    by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:09PM (#21226263) Journal
    The reaction rate of oxidizing hydrogen or even many alcohols isn't a problem with the catalysts in current use, the porblem is that the catalysts are based on platinum, rhodium etc.. which are extremely expensive. The catalyst in this case is based on Iridium which is also very expensive, if not more so than Platinum. Lcohols are not an unusual starting material for making water and giving off large amounts of energy in an oxidation reaction. Methanol for example, in contact with Platinum in air will oxidize to formaldehyde and water releasing enough heat to eventually cause the platinum to glow red. This is in fact used to great effect in certain fire-starting mechanisms.
    • Re:sigh (Score:4, Insightful)

      by florescent_beige ( 608235 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:33PM (#21226439) Journal

      Right, alcohol fuel cells [] already exist.

      My reading of the blurb leads me to think their apparent contribution is finding an iridium based metal hydride that catalyzes both the oxidation and reduction sides, which I never thought about and didn't know platinum couldn't do. Your example above leads me to think it can so I'm wondering what this is really all about.

      Also we have a new reason not to RTFA. The summary forbids us from doing so.
    • by Fred_A ( 10934 )
      So basically they found a new expensive catalyst to turn a product (alcohol) that is energetically costly to make and that consumes quite a bit of water, back into water and energy. Presumably with some non negligible loss of both energy and water in the process.

      Is this supposed to be some kind of exciting news ?

      Or maybe it is of interest to chemists because it's some sort of exotic catalytic reaction ?
      • Or maybe it is of interest to chemists because it's some sort of exotic catalytic reaction ?
        we have a winner. There are better energy solutions than using alcohols [which are usually made at the expense of food production]. Food that otherwise could have fed millions of people and saved many lives.
        • . . . or it could've rotted in the fields because it was no longer economically feasible to harvest or transport the food to the millions of hungry mouths. Food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels which are just stored biomass. The more expensive it gets to extract and refine fossil fuels, the more attractive using "fresh" biomass for fuels becomes. We just need to produce more biomass than our machines and bodies consume.
  • WTF (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:11PM (#21226273)
    Er... Water is pretty much the side product of almost any reaction. For example, you may have heard that ethanol burns relatively cleanly. Translation: Ethanol -> Carbon dioxide + Water
    This has almost never not been known.
    • Yup.

      An "unusual starting substance" would be something like pure boron.

      Well, I learned last night that you can make your own steroids with Red Bull and Super Glue so it's time to dust off the pyrex!
      • "An "unusual starting substance" would be something like pure boron."

        My god man, I read that as "pure bacon," and was filled with a rush of visions of a glorious future, in which water was no longer pumped from the ground, but instantly created as a byproduct of the pork industry.

        Maybe I've had too much Super Bull Red Glue...

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Upon inspection of the molecules it was discovered that they in fact had created Di-Hydrogen Oxide and not water which has caused quite a few deaths of late.
  • Free Energy (Score:4, Informative)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:39PM (#21226473) Homepage Journal
    All these chemicals are just storage media for energy released by the fuel cells. Where is all that alcohol supposed to come from, Russia's motherlode of vodka wells?

    Making the alcohol consumes the very energy released by the fuel cells along with water. If the alcohol is fermented vegetation, that bacterial process consumes some of the energy to process the higher-energy sugars and carbohydrates in the vegetation. The vegetation is the key, because it converts the actual source of energy, sunlight, into those sugars. But by the time the alcohol hits the fuel cell, already over 95% of the sun's energy is lost in other processes before the final 50-80% max efficiency is applied to the usable 5%.
    • Not to mention the inherently low efficiency of light-harvesting in photosynthesis in general which hovers around 1% of total insolation recieved.
      • The QM theoretical peak efficiency of photosynthesis is 12%. Sugar cane gets 8%, the most of any land plant. But I haven't seen stats showing the average is so low. Where can I find them?
        • Here, among several other studies : []

          "The work in our laboratory was initiated after the last world war by calculations of maximal efficiencies for some field crops, taking high annual yields in Holland, from agricultural data, making allowance for roots, stubbles, etc., and comparing them with the average energy on the cultivated surface during the growth period (27). Considering only wave lengths available for photosynthesis, the efficiencies were betw

          • That's a fascinating article, with all kinds of fundamental limits specified (like light quanta per CO2 reduced, total global biomass by category, human energy requirements, etc). And several documented experiments showing photosynthesis peaks near its actual QM efficiency (in the chlorophyll band) of 27% (of which 44.5% of photos reaching the Earth make the 12% overall [] efficiency).

            I wonder why the 27% overall efficiency is so much lower than the 90%+ theoretical efficiency [] of the actual photosynthesis, onc
    • by g8oz ( 144003 )
      You're right, but historically, the concentration of energy in a source has been more important than the total efficiency of the process involved in making it. Just look at the oil and gas industry. It hardly efficient to wait 70 million years for decomposed plant matter to turn into an acceptable fuel, but that hasn't stopped the world from depending on it.
      • Well sure, but that's exactly why I asked "Where is all that alcohol supposed to come from, Russia's motherlode of vodka wells?"

        The point isn't some abstraction about efficiency. It's the most concrete point about where the energy is supposed to actually come from, while we get all excited about improving one bottleneck in one segment in one conduit from whatever source to our consumption.
    • by Velocir ( 851555 )
      The US produces a lot more vodka than Russia. So maybe it will be their vodka wells?
    • Thank you for recognizing that simple alcohols as a general-purpose energy source aren't end-to-end efficient. I'd presume that the ethanol, like that that the Bush regime mistakes for transportation fuel, is to come from extremely inefficient corn production / fermentation. More toxic fertilizers dumped into the ground and thus into the Gulf of Mexico. Marvy.
      • Practical approaches have to be measured as alternatives against each other. I pointed out that creating new energy pathways through our industry requires better than adding an efficiency-eating intermediary step, even if that extra decrease has improved efficiency over its previous (prohibitively inefficient) version, if a different, simpler pathway is more efficient overall.

        I don't know the true facts of the overall energy budget of corn/ethanol/fuel production. It's so politicized from several directions
  • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @07:09PM (#21227101) Journal
    Water into Wine - that's a miracle.

    Wine into water - that's the work of a beast!

    • I've had the ability to turn wine (and other alcohol based beverages) into water for quite some time. Well... a water-like substance anyway.
  • ... inside internal combustion engine? By this I mean energy conversion efficiency, and cost/durability.
    • Fuel cells are about 70% total efficiency or more. Internal combustion engines are about 20-30%. Bigger co generation plants can get to 50%. At this point fuel cells that can compare to the robustness of normal engines are expensive. The rest are more or less at the research prototype level.
    • How does this compare to just burning alcohol inside internal combustion engine?

      Well, for one thing, you're not going to want an internal combustion engine inside your laptop.
  • Let's just concentrate on developing more efficient ways of turning salt water into fresh water.

    This might not seem like such an important thing to do, but it is. There are nations in the world (even modern nations) that suffer from a constant shortage of water. They could benefit from an easily renewable source of fresh water and would pay dearly for better technology to achieve this.

    There's no money to be made in turning alcohol into water.

  • As states the UIUC report, 'not only can they make water from unlikely starting materials, such as alcohols,

    Okay, I can understand water into wine, but the other way around?

  • Hate to be pedantic (okay, that's a lie) but the tag on the article is a misquotation.
  • First off, thank you to James E. Kloeppel, the author of the press release, for giving credit to the grad student and identifying him as the lead author. Second, I have no idea where water is formally known as dihydrogen monoxide. Hopefully, that was a joke. When I go to see the queen, I will be sure to address it by the proper name. Go Illini! It sounds like the entire press release could be summed up in one sentence. They developed a new iridium catalyst that helps electrochemically reduce oxygen in fuel
  • "Turn alcohol into water" you mean... with a device called a "match." Just burn it and you get h2o + co2. I don't even know what the hell this article is getting at other than a giant obscfucation of the most obvious chemical principals combined with some rather messed up and nonsensical notations.
  • by argent ( 18001 ) <peter.slashdot@2006@taronga@com> on Sunday November 04, 2007 @04:36PM (#21234513) Homepage Journal
    This is about "generating power in a fuel cell".

    Poor Zachariah Heiden made some comment that included the partial sentence "unconventional metal hydrides can be used for a chemical process called oxygen reduction, which is an essential part of the process of making water", and all the context got thrown away.

    The actual paper seems to be "Homogeneous Catalytic Reduction of Dioxygen Using Transfer []
    Hydrogenation Catalysts".

"So why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here." -- Biff in "Back to the Future"