Long before the dinosaurs were yielding up that last full measure that would provide us with oil, humble plants were generating a power that could solve our problems. Can we mimic nature’s photosynthesis energy factories? A consortium of Princeton University and Australian scientists think we can. Using hydrogen and water, they are developing an energy-producing system that is totally clean and uses abundant resources.

This new process, laden with the potential for an energy evolution, is one of several enticing discoveries investors will discuss at the “Princeton University Jumpstart Innovation Forum” on Wednesday, April 9, at 5:30 p.m. in the Friends Center Auditorium. The event is free. Register at slanders@princeton.edu.

Bob Monsour, associate director of the sponsoring Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, calls the event “a chance for the inventors to meet investors, angels, and venture capitalists with the hopes of commercialization.” Selected from all scientific disciplines in Princeton University, developer groups each make a three-minute pitch, then offer poster sessions at length for those interested.

Tapping the energies of hydrogen in water has become one of today’s most popular research goals. In hopes of solving the problem, Princeton professor G. Charles Dismukes has formed a tripartite collaboration linked with two Australian institutions. Last year, doctoral candidate Robert Brimblecombe from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and that nation’s Monash University came to Princeton to help work on the initial step.

Brimblecombe, who gained bachelors degrees in biology and renewable energy from Monash University, is using this current experimentation to fuel his chemistry doctorate. “It’s funny. I grew up in Melbourne, with two teachers as parents, and until I was grown, I never realized how much their love of the environment effected my career,” he says.

A leaf’s inspiration. Every spring, as green leaves push out, the energy of the sun strikes a catalyzing enzyme, inciting photosynthesis. The water within separates into fuel for the plant and oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere. It’s simple, clean, age old, and an excellent model for inspiring a similar conversion of sea water into hydrogen, oxygen, and electrical energy.

The aim, says Brimblecombe, “is to produce carbonless hydrogen energy by mimicking this natural photosynthesis process. It’s wonderful to see how much we can learn from nature.”

Hydrogen power. Hydrogen is a marvelous carrier of energy — just like electricity. But just like electricity it requires a kickstart to get that energy out and flowing. Princeton’s Dismukes Group began providing this kickstart by seeking a synthetic catalyst that would excite the sea water to separate into hydrogen gas and waste oxygen. The viable catalyst proved to be a cubane — a synthetic hydrocarbon molecule of manganese and iron that some feel is similar to the still-vaguely known plant enzyme in photosynthesis.

In theory, light activates this cubane catalyst which in turn causes a chemical reaction splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Thus, feeding water and the cubane into a solar cell initiates the splitting process. This separating of water into hydrogen and oxygen sets up the raw fuel elements providing the energy source. The hydrogen and oxygen are then fed into a fuel cell. Here, two electrodes force the energy-laden hydrogen gas out one side and atmospherically purifying oxygen out the other. Like photosynthesis, the process provides fuel and clean air in a single stroke.

Will it sell? The Dismukes Collaboration has parceled the three steps of their bio-inspired hydrogen power process amongst the three primary institutions. Princeton has achieved the first step by developing a workable cubane catalyst which initiates the water splitting. It remains for those at Monash University to engineer an efficient solar cell and for CSIRO to effectively lure usable hydrogen gas from the fuel cell.

Dismukes’ Princeton Group has also developed a working model of the entire system on a tiny laboratory scale. “It fuels an area of only about an eight-inch square,” says Brimblecombe. “If we were the size of gnats, we’d be ready to go.” Yet this small, low efficiency model provides much-sought-after proof that the concept works; and that furnishes Dismukes with a reason to pitch.

As alternatives now stand, solar energy remains dauntingly expensive, demanding about $5,000 worth of panels at retail value to produce one kilowatt. Current hydrogen fuel cells, catalyzed by traditional fuels, are mired in a tangle of logistical transport problems. The hydrogen gas must be produced at centers then trucked to the usage area. Just like oil, with the same involved infrastructure.

The Dismukes Group seeks to unite the benefits of both systems — the low-cost of hydrogen gas, and the simple, onsite production capabilities of solar. In addition, the bio-inspired hydrogen method is totally clean, both in the burning, and in the production of the gas itself. The system is not self-defeatingly burning dirty oil or coal to produce seemingly clean hydrogen.

Brimblecombe estimates that within several years a workable prototype should be ready for commercial production. He points out that the adoption of this new clean energy system is less likely to be derailed by lack of knowledge than by political will. There are a lot of very powerful businesses making a lot of money with current fuels who will fight any change to the death.

Yet the power of the clever and far-sighted investor can ever be counted on to move the marketplace and our lives. Imagine getting in on the ground floor of a wholly clean, amazingly cheap fuel which provides electricity, heats one’s house, fires up the family car, runs on sea water, and actually adds beneficial oxygen to our atmosphere. Imagine your children being urged to drive their autos more often, to help fight global warming. It could happen, and the odds are excellent that it will.

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