H20: The Wonder Substance―Part 3

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on November 08, 2016
Vicky Harris
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Water for Humanity

Over the past two weeks, we have been writing about H2O. The first article highlighted how water has powered civilization for thousands of years, while the second article explored the unique properties of a substance that is so abundant, we take it for granted. Today, we close this series with a human approach. Specifically, we look at how technological ingenuity is helping society to find new ways to benefit from water—in particular, by harvesting the energy (or the H part) of H2O.

A couple of years ago, the Smithsonian Institute published an article intriguingly titled, “Seven Unexpected Ways We Can Get Energy from Water.” They opened the article with a picture of a dam to make a powerful point: “It’s not all about giant dams—H2O is a surprisingly common and versatile tool for meeting the world’s energy needs.” The obvious fact is that most of our electricity already comes from water. In addition to dams, water powers our cities in the form of steam that generators convert into electricity. Fossil fuels and even nuclear energy use that fuel source to steam water. The interesting point, however, is that all of this power is just the tip of the iceberg of the energy potential embodied in water. The Smithsonian article lists hydrogen fuel as one of the seven unexpected ways we can get energy from water. The hydrogen contained in water has the potential to power humanity’s energy needs for thousands of years.


H20: One of the Most Stable Substances in the Universe

Last week, we looked into some of the incredible properties of water that the hydrogen-oxygen bond enables. One of the least intuitive, for example, is how water in a solid state can be less dense than that in a liquid state. By definition, solids are denser than their liquid counterparts. However, the fact that ice floats is a powerful demonstration of the uniqueness of the H2O bond. The bond between these basic elements, however, happens to create a resilient substance that is extremely stable, which means the bond is quite strong and difficult to break. This stability is why water can remain as water (without being broken into its two basic elements) in asteroids, moons, planets, and your glass of water.

The marriage between the elements in H2O is so hard to break that it took us thousands of years to discover the existence of the universe’s most abundant element (hydrogen) despite drinking it every day. Twenty-seven elements were discovered before hydrogen in 1766. Furthermore, the element was not discovered by experimenting with water. That’s how hard it is to break the most common of bonds between elements on Earth.

Breaking the Bond to Produce Energy

If you ever imagined the ideal fuel, it would be hydrogen. It is extremely energetic and unrivaled for its ability to release more energy than other alternatives. To put this in perspective, the element is three-times more energetic than gasoline and five-times more energetic than coal. It is also clean. When hydrogen is combusted, it mixes with oxygen to create water vapor, which nature immediately reincorporates into the environment. However, we all know hydrogen is difficult: from its extraction to its storage and use, this element poses many challenges.

Back to water. The good news is that, as strong as the hydrogen-oxygen bond is, breaking it is just a matter of ingenuity and technology. Scientists first figured out how to break this bond in 1789 when an electrostatic machine and a Leyden jar were used to induce electrolysis, thereby, separating the oxygen from the hydrogen in water. However, using this process to harvest hydrogen for the purpose of converting it into fuel has significant limitations: it consumes much more energy than it yields. That is why the hydrogen in fuel cells is obtained from fossil fuels today, which is not a very clean way of getting it—no matter how clean it is once consumed.

Water for the Future

As we face the challenges of our present and our future, water will continue to play the central role it always has. The Earth’s climate system, regulated by water currents and temperature differences in the planet’s oceans, will dictate the rate and the effects of global warming. Water also holds the key to solving this challenge.

The Smithsonian article referenced at the beginning identified seven ways to obtain energy from water, in addition to the ones already in use. The reality is that water is central to everything we do, including how we get the energy to power our society. The energy we can get from water, in so many forms, can help us move away from fossil fuels and into a sustainable future.

At Joi Scientific, we are working to unlock more of the energy secrets of the most stable, abundant and noble substance on our planet by extracting hydrogen from water in a way that could give us a clean, energetic fuel that does not warm the planet and is as abundant as the water that contains it.


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