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Sandia labs make energy discovery
By Sue Vorenberg
Scripps Howard News Service


March 22, 2005

Sunlight and tiny technology might hold the cure to global energy addiction, Sandia National Laboratories scientists say.

A team at the labs has made a breakthrough in materials science that could ease the means of turning water into oxygen and hydrogen - which many experts think will replace gasoline.

"The biggest threat to this country's national security is energy security," said Craig Medforth, a member of the team. "There's a general consensus that oil supplies are really going to diminish in the next 10 to 20 years, and we need to move away from our fossil fuel dependence sooner rather than later."

The team has discovered a way to make microscopic tubes out of porphyrin, a material similar to chlorophyll, the chemical that plants use to convert sunlight into energy.

Scientists can tweak the tubes by filling them with gold and coating them with platinum balls. The result is a device smaller than a human hair that uses sunlight and chemicals to split water into its two basic components of hydrogen and oxygen, said John Shelnutt, another scientist on the team.

"People have tried to make these nano-tubes out of porphyrin before and all they get is goop," Medforth said. "One of our researchers, Zhongchun Wang, actually figured out how to make the tubes form entirely from this stuff without falling apart."

Other scientists have tried making similar tubes out of metal _ or coating metal tubes with porphyrin _ but those methods aren't nearly as efficient at making hydrogen as the porphyrin tubes, Shelnutt said.

A larger device made of the tweaked tubes could be the foundation for hydrogen-based gas stations, which will be essential if the country is to switch from gas-based cars to hydrogen-based cars, Shelnutt said.

"This could make America energy-independent," Shelnutt said. "It might sound far-off, but 50 years down the road if we don't have something like that in place, nobody's going to be moving around much."

Another problem with burning through all the world's oil is that plastics are made from it, and once the oil is gone, plastic will become a scarce material, Medforth said.

"Oil and natural gas are our main feedstocks for plastic," he said. "We're burning through that feedstock now, but you have to wonder what we'll do to get plastic when that feedstock is gone."

Oil prices will likely continue to rise as supplies of the non-renewable energy source get shorter. Hydrogen fuel is more expensive to produce now, but when gasoline costs $10 a gallon, it will become more reasonable to start switching everything to hydrogen, Shelnutt said.

"At some point you want to set up hydrogen stations at regular intervals around cities and highways," Shelnutt said. "You probably don't want to transport huge amounts of hydrogen around with your car because its flammable _ like gasoline."

As hydrogen-producing technology develops, hydrogen fuel prices will also likely drop - although perhaps not as low as the $2 to $3 a gallon Americans are paying for gasoline right now, the scientists said.

The next steps in their work will be to try to get the tubes to line up in organized fashion so they can make fuel more efficiently, they said.

"We still have a lot of steps to go before we get to the point where we're switching to hydrogen fuel," Medforth said. "People have to figure out the best ways to store hydrogen and use it. But this technology we're developing is a tiny step on that path, and we'll have to get there eventually."


E-mail Sue Vorenberg at svorenberg(at)
Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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