and welcome to Scientific American Frontiers. I'm Alan Alda.
will today's kids be putting into the tanks of their cars when they
start driving in ten or fifteen years time? Chances are it'll still
be gasoline but the price they'll be paying could be steep,
not just in dollars and even lives as the international competition
for oil escalates, but in the consequences of continuing to pour
global warming gases into the atmosphere.
is why in this program we're visiting some of the people who are
planning for a future when oil will begin to be replaced by a fuel
that can be made in unlimited quantities and produces zero pollution
meet a husband and wife team who've been working toward a hydrogen-powered
economy for over 40 years...
checking in with a brand new start-up company that plans to harvest
hydrogen-producing algae from smokestacks and sunlight ...
we're visiting a country that plans to be the first in the world
to achieve energy independence through hydrogen
all coming up in tonight's episode, Hydrogen Hopes.
ALDA (NARRATION) In Germany recently we checked out a car that's
powered by a fuel cell and runs on hydrogen. Much of the auto industry
is betting that cars like this are the future, reducing dependency
on oil and by putting out only water from their exhausts reducing
the emission of carbon dioxide, linked to global warming.
ALDA It smells good, you know? Really, it smells like a laundry
NATKIN Fresh laundry is what we call it.
ALDA Moist air, yeah, really nice. That'll turn out to be like a
thing that people do, you know, smelling each other's tail pipes.
ALDA (NARRATION) The car I was sniffing is also powered by hydrogen,
but it doesn't employ a fuel cell. This is a Ford Focus, modified
so that it's internal combustion engine runs on hydrogen instead
of gasoline. It's also a hybrid, employing an electric motor to
supplement its engine.
ALDA You've got hybrids on the road now that use gasoline and electricity.
But here, electricity and hydrogen, that seems like, it seems like
we're standing next to a car of way in the future. I mean, how far
in the future is this car?
NATKIN The technology here is all conventional technology utilizing
a new fuel. If we had fuel available this car would be out in a
very short period of time.
ALDA (NARRATION) And here is the big roadblock to replacing gasoline
with hydrogen actually, two big roadblocks: first, getting the
hydrogen; and second, distributing and storing it. We're going to
tackle the storage issue first. Like most experimental hydrogen-powered
vehicles being tested today, this one runs on compressed hydrogen
gas stored in a high-pressure tank. But hydrogen gas takes up much
more room than the equivalent amount of gasoline as well as raising
concerns about safety. Last year, we met a husband and wife team
who've been thinking about hydrogen for over forty years, and believe
they already know the best way to store it as a solid.
OVSHINSKY ... and you have an all hydrogen car with solid hydrogen.
ALDA Now what's Iris getting?
OVSHINSKY I brought a piece of your solid...
ALDA (NARRATION) The sample Iris Ovshinsky has brought over is a
proprietary metal alloy that soaks up hydrogen gas like a sponge
soaks up water.
ALDA How do you get the hydrogen out of this and into the car?
OVSHINSKY Very easily, because we put it into a tank back here...
ALDA (NARRATION) Stan and Iris claim their Ovonics tank can store
twice as much hydrogen as a typical high-pressure tank containing
ALDA What's keeping us from having these either in our cars or at
the gas station to produce hydrogen? What's the roadblock?
OVSHINSKY Ah, we're the best-kept secret. Now that we're on television,
maybe that will change!
ALDA (NARRATION) We were so intrigued by Stan and Iris Ovshinsky
that we decided we'd go visit them. So here we are, a year after
I drove off in their solid-hydrogen-powered Prius in California,
arriving in the same car borrowed for the occasion at Stan and
Iris's corporate headquarters in suburban Detroit.
OVSHINSKY Nice to see you again.
ALDA (NARRATION) We're starting at the place that's the heart of
the Ovshinskys' now far-flung empire and an alchemist's dream.
Here, a mix of metals are brewed into unique alloys that have in
common a passion for hydrogen surpassed only by Stan and Iris's.
When these alloys encounter hydrogen they embrace it to form metal
hydrides. The best known is the nickel metal hydride in the rechargeable
battery of your cell phone or camera. Stan Ovshinsky has spent decades
tweaking the formula of these alloys, allowing hydrogen to slip
into and out of their embrace in different ways.
OVSHINSKY The hydrogen economy started right here years ago when
we started building nickel metal hydride batteries. Before us no
one had ever built them before. They tried to do it but they failed.
ALDA It's kind of fascinating that the same stuff you make a battery
out of you can store hydrogen in to run the car off of pure hydrogen.
OVSHINSKY That's exactly right.
ALDA Wow. Just by changing the recipe of this block of stuff.
OVSHINSKY That's what we're about, we invent the materials, we invent
the products and we invent the production technologies.
ALDA (NARRATION) At the foundry they told me that the production
technology in this case involves soaking the alloy block in hydrogen
to make it brittle.
After we got the big chunk...
ALDA Yeah, then you broke it up with hydrogen, and you ground it
up into a powder and that's what you've got here?
You're the expert, Alan!
ALDA How many elements do you have in each...?
Seven or eight.
ALDA Seven or eight elements. And every particle of powder has these
ALDA (NARRATION) Stan wanted us to get a close-up view of how the
hydrogen-absorbing powder can be loaded into a fuel tank.
ALDA They're wearing gas masks.
ALDA (NARRATION) The next step is a reminder that this is a project
still in the process of invention.
OVSHINSKY We wanted you to see how realistic everything is so there's
no hidden things there. Obviously in production you would not be
doing it that way.
ALDA When you mass produce these, you don't have two guys pouring
into a measuring cup.
OVSHINSKY That's what I'd like to make sure the public understands.
This is not a science fair.
ALDA What's amazing to me about this is that it is all done in a
fairly simple way, and up here is where all the work was done. That's
where the magic is.
ALDA (NARRATION) This little canister is already filled with Stan's
This canister we're going to charge with hydrogen. And you can actually
hold this. You can actually feel the hydrogen go in.
ALDA Now it's getting warm. This is because the hydrogen is mixing
with those particles.
It's reacting with the metal and it's forming the metal hydride
which is exothermic, it generates heat. So you can see the temperature
ALDA Now you could fry an egg on my hand. OK, thank you very much.
ALDA (NARRATION) To avoid melting your fuel tank ever time you fill
it with hydrogen this heat has to be gotten rid of and of course
Stan has a solution for that, too.
OVSHINSKY We'll go out and show it to you.
ALDA Yeah, but what about this? They're liable to be watching.
OVSHINSKY No cameras!
ALDA (NARRATION) The secret that Stan doesn't want competitors seeing
is that inside each fuel tank is an elaborate heat exchanger these
shiny things you can just see from back where you are a heat exchanger
that when you fuel up with hydrogen will have water pumped through
ALDA Ok, now you need the water so that when you put that in, it
doesn't overheat, when you put the hydrogen in.
ALDA Should I stand back?
No. You want to do it?
ALDA Is this alright?
ALDA Just jam it in here? JOHN Just push it on.
ALDA (NARRATION) A real hydrogen filling station would have to have
pumps that combined cooling water and hydrogen. But once you fueled
ALDA How far can I drive on that tank?
OVSHINSKY Well that one tank there is about 140 miles, right now
with that present alloy that we're using. However, I'm working on
other alloys and other things that will . . .
ALDA When you say you're working on other alloys, you must have
a list of things that you'd like to figure out.
OSHINSKY Stan always says he likes to use the materials from the
mind rather than from the mines.
ALDA And you do.
ALDA (NARRATION) We'll be back later in the show to see how Stan
plans to make hydrogen as well as store it. Meanwhile, we're visiting
a country that's perfectly placed to become the world's first to
run itself entirely on hydrogen.
ALDA (NARRATION) Nowhere is the dream of hydrogen's becoming the
fuel of the future more alive than here perhaps one of the last
spots on earth you'd expect such a revolution to unfold. We're in
Iceland, whose tiny population of less than 300,000 is entirely
dependent on imported oil oil that provides the fuel for its large
fishing fleet as well as its cars, trucks and buses. But if Iceland
has no oil of its own, it does possess another underground resource
-- hot magma from the earth's mantle welling up beneath a surface
that is itself the product of volcanic oozings in the not-too distant
past. In many places the magma comes close enough to the surface
to heat the groundwater to well above its boiling point. We're walking
in one of those spots now, where a borehole was recently drilled
to test the potential of the geothermal energy just under our feet.
ALDA This is just one of many boreholes in the country?
BJORN SKULASON Yup.
ALDA And you could make many more, you could put one pretty much
BJORN SKULASON Well I wouldn't say anyplace. It's more or less around
the crack where the Atlantic Ridge goes through the island. It's
remote control. You can open the borehole from far away. Just push
the red button and you will see.
ALDA (NARRATION) The noise is shattering and a dramatic reflection
of the power Iceland is sitting on power in the last 50 years
it has increasingly tapped, first to provide hot water for heating
homes, more recently to produce electricity. In fact, one of the
country's major tourist attractions the Blue Lagoon, packed year-round
with bathers is actually the waste pond for one of a half-dozen
or so geothermal power plants in Iceland.
BJORN SKULASON And this is more or less 100 percent renewable power
and then we can actually use that to make hydrogen. So we have a
big resource to make a lot of hydrogen to power our own vehicles
and our own ships and then in the future maybe vehicles and ships
in some other countries.
ALDA You'll be able to transport the hydrogen, which is a way of
BJORN SKULASON Electricity.
ALDA Electricity, and in turn that's a way of transporting your
ALDA (NARRATION) In the last few years, Iceland as a nation has
committed itself to this vision of becoming the world's first hydrogen
economy, freeing itself entirely from imported oil. Jon Bjorn Skulason
heads a venture jointly owned by the government and several major
companies with an interest in hydrogen. It has as its symbolic beginning
a rather lonely fuel station on the outskirts of the country's capital,
Reykjavik. ALAN ALDA It looks like you are all set up for a car
to pull up and fill up.
BJORN SKULASON It's actually ready. We can actually... the station
is full of hydrogen and if we had vehicles here we could actually
fill up vehicles right now. So it's ready for use.
ALDA Watch where you point that thing!
ALDA Now where is this coming from when it comes out of here?
BJORN SKULASON Well we've got to go inside and show you where all
the machinery is. So inside here you have all the major components
of the electrolyzer, actually the mother of the station as we can
ALDA (NARRATION) The electrolyzer is actually simply a reverse fuel
cell stack, producing hydrogen from electricity and water instead
of electricity and water from hydrogen.
ALDA This is right next to or part of a regular filling station
where they sell gasoline, right? And you can add a little building
like this and produce hydrogen at a filling station and sell it.
BJORN SKULASON Yup. That's what we think actually will be part of
the future is actually on-site production of hydrogen. You can see
all these oil tankers driving around all over the world. If we designed
the future like this we don't need oil tankers driving around anymore.
We still need the wires in the air with the electricity, and of
course, the water system or pipeline system for the water system,
but the distribution is on site.
ALDA (NARRATION) A few weeks after our visit to Reykjavik's hydrogen
filling station, it had a customer a delivery van, loaned for
the ceremonial opening of the station by one of the partners in
the venture, DaimlerChrysler. But while Iceland is bullish on becoming
a hydrogen economy, it does have unique advantages most of the rest
of the world lacks a small, politically cohesive population, and
above all of course, an abundant, cheap, clean and renewable source
of electricity that can be made into hydrogen on site in stations
like this one. In the United States, hydrogen is made today from
fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal. But in the future,
the hope is as in Iceland to make it from renewable sources,
and so eliminate the climate-warming gases generated by fossil fuels.
And the ultimate renewable resource, of course, is the sun as
we'll see next.
ALDA (NARRATION) The sun gets its energy from hydrogen, squeezing
its atoms until they fuse. So there's an appeal to the idea of using
the sun's energy to make hydrogen here on earth. The idea caught
Stan Ovshinsky's imagination in the early 1960s, when he sketched
it out on a blackboard for his wife and business partner Iris
and began experimenting in his storefront laboratory. His plan was
to capture solar power to make electricity, then use the electricity
to split apart water into its component elements, oxygen and hydrogen.
OVSHINSKY So we went to the first solar meetings that we could,
and I'll never forget, they gathered together, had a big magnifying
glass, and burned pieces of wood and saw smoke coming out, and thought
they were using wood.
OVSHINSKY And sold solar cigarette lighters.
OVSHINSKY And things like that. So I said, "well, that doesn't make
much sense." And I thought that we would approach it much differently.
And I started then the idea of the hydrogen loop, the complete loop.
Where do you get your hydrogen? Start with solar energy from the
ALDA (NARRATION) Today the solar energy business is booming, with
billions of dollars being spent on solar panels to make electricity.
Almost all these so-called photovoltaic systems employ cells made
from delicate and expensive crystals of silicon. But from the very
beginning, Stan and Iris Ovshinsky had a radically different kind
of solar device in mind. Here in a huge factory filled with machines
Stan mostly invented himself, photovoltaic panels are made not from
silicon crystals but multiple layers of the exotic metallic alloys
the Ovshinsky's use in all their creations. Turned out literally
by the mile, these solar panels soak up more sunlight than conventional
cells and are far more forgiving.
ALDA So these holes you've put I here to show that it doesn't damage
OVSHINSKY Yeah, for example... why don't you bring that here... this
is conventional crystalline, very heavy and...
ALDA Very heavy, yeah...
OVSHINSKY And breakable.
ALDA Now does this produce the same energy as this?
OVSHINSKY No. Through the day you get more energy out of this that
you do for that.
ALDA And if you damage one little part of this, the whole panel
is out, right? Now here you've damaged a dozen places. So now, this
is hooked up to this radio? And that's your only source of light?
ALDA The radio goes right on. And you can actually take this out
in the rain?
OVSHINSKY I do it all the time. I get my clothes all wet. Because
everybody says that and then when we get back to the office and
it's raining I rush out, and I meet them with rain coming down,
playing the music.
ALDA (NARRATION) Several large structures all over the world are
now clad in Ovshinsky's solar panels. While they are less efficient
in bright sunlight than conventional solar cells, their ability
to go on making electricity even in dim daylight for instance,
in the early morning and late evening, as well as while it's cloudy
or raining makes them an attractive alternative. Stan's latest
invention is an extraordinary machine, longer than a football field,
that's able to make six strips of his solar panels at a time, each
a mile and a half long. His goal is to make solar electricity as
cheap as that made from coal, then use the electricity to make hydrogen.
ALDA When you first proposed to your people that you wanted to make
something a mile long, what did they say?
ALDA They thought he was crazy.
OVSHINSKY I don't ask for, when I introduce a brand new thing, I
never ask for taking a vote. We offer solutions here to what people
think are the most serious problems right now -- pollution, climate
change, and wars over oil. As well as building new industries. So
I think if you want to change the world, this is a better way than
making political speeches.
ALDA (NARRATION) Stan Ovshinsky's dream is to make hydrogen from
the sun via solar-generated electricity. But there are other ways
the sun could create hydrogen. Here on the roof of the power station
for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the test of a plan
to make hydrogen from sunlight using the everyday miracle of photosynthesis.
The gas making the bubbles in these green tubes comes from the power
plant's smokestack and the green stuff is algae. Ancestors of
the algae here once grew in the ocean, but now the microscopic plants
are feeding on the flue gases and growing in the sunlight.
BERZIN Imagine a black box, and fuel gases are coming into this
box, and what's coming out of this box is renewable energy, and
clean gases. OK? So instead of a black box, it's a green triangle.
That's the only difference, OK?
ALDA (NARRATION) The algae in Isaac Berzin's green triangle absorb
most of the pollutants in the flue gases, leaving them some 80 percent
cleaner. Every day, the tubes are drained to collect the last 24
hours of growth.
ALDA They're harvesting the algae in there? How do they. . .
BERZIN They just drain ALAN ALDA They just drain it out.
BERZIN Like a cow, they take a little milk from the cow, and you
leave enough there for the new generation to catch up.
ALDA (NARRATION) The algae in the buckets have done a job power
plant operators usually have to install expensive pollution control
equipment to do remove the nitrogen oxides from their stack gases.
The algae have also consumed most of the carbon dioxide, or CO2.
ALDA So this has a lot of bad stuff in it, you wouldn't want to
. . .
BERZIN No, actually not. Once the carbon, once the CO2 is turning
into organic carbon, there's nothing bad in it.
ALDA You mean a person could eat this?
BERZIN Actually we start every . . .
ALDA I'm shocked, that the producers haven't made me eat this.
BERZIN Listen, I want to tell you something. We start every morning
with a glass of algae drink.
ALDA Get out of here. I don't believe that. No, come on.
BERZIN You can get it in Whole Foods, it's called a green machine,
there are all kinds of generic names for it. It's basically algae
drink. It's good for you. It's a health product.
ALDA So after the algae eats all that bad stuff, it's just a nice
piece of algae.
BERZIN It's because the chemistry changes.
ALDA You're not making this to see it in a health food store. What
do you do with it that makes it profitable to the company that uses
BERZIN Very simple. You can take this and use it as a renewable
energy source. First thing you have to do is dry it. How do you
dry it? Well, the flu gases are very hot, we touched it. You saw
that. So use this excess heat to dry this goo stuff into something
that looks like a powder. So you feel now in your hand the transfer
of CO2 from a gas that no one knows what to do with, to a viable
product, you feel it in your hand now.
ALDA Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BERZIN OK? So that's the miracle.
ALDA (NARRATION) Today, power plant operators pay money to get rid
of nitrogen oxides from their stack gases and one day in the future
they may pay to get rid of carbon dioxide, too, as evidence continues
to mount that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels like coal
is contributing to global warming. Isaac's idea is that power plants
will install large arrays of his green triangles, earning money
by cleaning the gases and also providing the raw material for what's
called bio-gasification, a process for turning waste plant material
into hydrogen. Making hydrogen from the algae ends up putting carbon
dioxide back into the air, but...
ALDA In a way, you've used the carbon twice, so you get two hits
ALDA You get twice the use of the same amount of carbon. So this
doesn't prevent carbon from going into the atmosphere, but it makes
more efficient use of it.
BERZIN Exactly, so that's one of the reasons we think it's going
to catch. Because if you want to make an environmental revolution,
you have two ways. OK, one way is take stones and throw stones on
the bad guys. Another way is, look guys, let's make more money.
Yes, it's environmental, but let's make money. So it's making a
more efficient use of the current infrastructure of power production
in this country.
ALDA (NARRATION) So in Isaac's vision, a by-product of burning fossil
fuels would be hydrogen, created from waste gases and sunlight captured
by his algae.
ALDA Let me see you go first.
BERZIN OK, cheers guys.
ALDA (NARRATION) And that seems a vision well worth a toast.
ALDA You can turn this into hydrogen?
ALDA Alright, I'll drink to that.