Racing Towards Very Different Hydrogen Futures
This was supposed to be a story about Aston Martin and Alset Global's news-making, zero-emission run of a hydrogen-fueled Rapide S saloon car during the Nürburgring 24 Hours endurance race.
The modified, dual-fueled, four-door garnered much deserved publicity as it became the first race car to qualify burning only hydrogen in its twin turbo-charged 6.0L V12 engine, which enabled it, at times, to hit a top speed of 160 mph with essentially zero-emissions. How the team handled the engine's inevitable smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, one of the by-products of combusting air in any IC engine, wasn't explained.
Regardless, what the team accomplished is certainly one for the record books, though whether it will ever be a practical way to use the lightest and most abundant element in the universe remains to be seen. After all, you have to be extraordinarily brave (or foolish) to not only drive at 160 mph around the twisting, turning, 16.1 mile 'Green Monster', but do so while literally sitting next to a pair of hydrogen tanks pressurized at more than 5,000 psi (350 bar). The other two H2 tanks in the Rapide were mounted over the rear axle. With a total capacity of just 3.3 kg of hydrogen, the car could run one-and-half laps on hydrogen and then coast to the pits on a reserve tank of gasoline. Amazingly, refilling the four hydrogen tanks took only 30 second.
Yet, while Aston Martin and the Rapide S were preparing to make history in Germany, south of the Alps in Ferrara, Italy, just below a bend in the River Po, in a nondescript industrial park, a potentially far more historic test of hydrogen technology took place in March of this year.
A team of Italian and Swedish scientists watched for 116 hours a 9 cm diameter steel cylinder measuring 33 cm in length as its surface glowed bright orange to white hot on computer monitor that was connected to their infrared video camera. Recording a single frame every second, the camera and their analytical software told them that the cylinder's surface temperature was averaging 302 C (575 F).
When they finally shut down the experiment on March 23, 2013, they concluded that the device called an E-Cat HT2 had generated excess energy "about three orders of magnitudes beyond any other conventional energy source."
In fact, when plotted against other energy storage densities, from lithium ion batteries to liquid hydrogen on a Ragone plot of energy storage, the device slowly cooling on the metal rack in front of them "lies outside the region occupied by conventional chemical sources."
The Return of Andrea Rossi
Some two years ago, an Italian engineer named Andrea Rossi caused a stir by claiming he had developed, with critical help from Italian physicist Sergio Focardi, a device that generates what is described as 'anomalous' amounts of heat from a completely unknown process. EV World was fortunate to have been able to interview Signor Rossi twice and we've periodically stayed in touch over the intervening months asking for updates on his work, which he politely refused to give.
Now we know why.
He has been further refining his technology and late last year consented to have it independently tested. The results of those tests were just published and EV World had the chance to not only review them, but also elicit a brief comment out of Signor Rossi, who clarified a question we had about the sustainability of the process. He suggested we re-read the paper and on closer examination, we found the answer.
While the good folks at Aston Martin and Alset Global were tinkering with 20th century hydrogen technology, the team in Ferrara were investigating the 21st. Inside that 33 cm AISI 310 steel cylinder is hydrogen saturated nickel, plus a proprietary catalyst that when heated to a critical temperature begins to generate thermal energy far beyond what known science can explain. It's not chemical and it's definitely not nuclear fission or fusion, hot or cold. It's something in between that isn't combustion, so there's no air pollution to deal with and there's no radioactive materials produced. If you could ask for the perfect energy source, short of dilithium crystals, this might be it.
Now about this time, skeptics and debunkers are squirming in their seats and preparing to chide us for believing in what is surely quackery and fraud. It violates all the known laws of physics. That's right, it does and that's exactly what Giuseppe Levi with the University of Bologna, Torbjorn Hartman, Bo Hoistad, Roland Pettersson and Lars Tegner with Uppsala University, and Hanno Essen, with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, along with Evelyn Foschi from Bologna realized, writing in the abstract to their paper, after conducting two successful investigations; a 96-hour one December 2012 and the 116-hour test this past March:
"Computed volumetric and gravimetric energy densities were found to be far above those of any known chemical source. Even by the most conservative assumptions as to the errors in the measurements, the result is still one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources."
Actually, there were three tests, an earlier one in November 2012 failed when the heat inside the thick steel tube melted it and the two encasing ceramic tubes around it. Before the meltdown, the IR camera recorded at least one hot spot inside the device that measured 859 C (1,578 F). The researchers assume that the 1000 watt resistor coils used to stimulate the process were partly to blame. The subsequent test in December and again in March were restricted to 360W.
On Closer Examination
Two years ago, in a couple of limited public tests, scientists and the media were restricted to observing and noting the temperature of the water circulating through one of the test devices. This time around, the scientists were free to set up all the equipment they needed to observe and record the energy output, as well as electric input, of the device.
What they report in their paper is that the process requires continual 'nudges' of heat from the resistors that surround the interior steel tube containing the nickel, hydrogen and a secret catalyst. They estimate the resistors are on some 35% of the time and inactive 65% of the time over both the 96 and 116-hour periods. Careful monitoring verified that the maximum external energy input into the device averaged 360W and no more. They also observed from careful, frame-by-frame analysis of the videos, that the heat cycles of the resistors are different from the heat cycle of the mystery process. In fact, some of their video reveals what appear to be shadows inside the device. These were determined to be the resistance wires being silhouetted by a far hotter and brighter energy process deeper in the device.
Between the December 2012 test and the March 2013 test, Rossi's team made modifications to the E-Cat. Where the December unit was clad in a pair of larger ceramic tubes, the March unit was all steel with a large flange at one end that is designed to attach the device to a heat exchanger said to be in development. The second unit also ran cooler than the December model: 302 C versus 438 C, respectively. The paper speculates that it may have to do with a slightly different formulation of the powder.
There were two other key differences. The March unit was able to run in a self-sustaining mode. A proprietary control box that the researchers weren't allowed to inspect likely contain thermoelectric couples (we're speculating here) that use excess heat from the E-Cat to generate electric current that is fed back into the resistor coils for two minutes. They are then switched off for four minutes and the cycle repeats itself, running uninterrupted for 116 straight hours, during which time the researchers carefully monitored any electric current fed into the device. They write:
An interesting aspect of the E-Cat HT2 (HT stands for 'high temperature') is certainly its capacity of operate in self-sustaining mode.
The second change was the addition of a proprietary wave form that was used to control the heating cycle of the resistors.
When the experiment was over, the researchers removed the cylinder containing the powder and ran measurements on the resistors coils which performed exactly as predicted.
Something special is happening inside the tube, but what exactly, no one is sure.
The team plans to conduct an even longer test starting later this summer and lasting 6 months. "This test," they write, "will be crucial for further attempts to unveil the origin of the heat phenomenon observed so far."
Back on the track at Nürburgring, Aston Martin demonstrated one possible energy future where inefficient internal combustion engines burn hydrogen gas pressurized like small bombs. Then there's the other possible future, one where a catalyst of hydrogen, nickel and Signor Rossi's 'secret sauce' mysteriously generates clean, non-polluting energy for heating homes, lighting factories, and yes, maybe even powering the vehicles of the 21st century.
Stay turned… things are starting to get very interesting.
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