View Point

By Patrick K. Takahashi
and Richard E. Rocheleau

Friday, August 23, 1996

'Chain Reaction'
hits very close to home

Summer action movie
draws on technology being explored
at the University of Hawaii

THE movie "Chain Reaction," exploding across the screen at island theaters, has all the time-tested ingredients of a Hollywood action movie: a brave and clever hero, omnipotent government conspirators, and spectacular explosions and chases. But while the plots of these movies tend to be far afield, "Chain Reaction" hits a lot closer to home.

Richard Milholland,
L.A.Times Syndicate

The film's premise is this: Scientists develop a way to produce hydrogen gas from water, thereby creating a limitless source of clean, cheap energy. However, nefarious government officials don't want this discovery known because they believe the world isn't ready for cheap energy (go figure). So they destroy the project to keep the technology from spreading. Mayhem ensues.

Convoluted movie plots aside, what we found interesting about "Chain Reaction" is that it presents a connection to Hawaii and to research being done at the University of Hawaii.

The filmmakers had one thing right: Hydrogen can be produced from water. And, yes, if a way can be found to easily and cheaply split water into its component hydrogen and oxygen gases, then we'd indeed have a limitless resource for all our major energy needs - transportation, electricity generation, cooking and heating.

(If you've forgotten your science, water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. You can split water into these two elements by electrolysis or chemical reactions. Ignite the two gases and the resulting explosion produces water, which you then split again. The problem right now is that hydrogen production is not economical.)

Anyway, in "Chain Reaction," the conspirators are attempting to stop this development. In reality, the federal government is the major underwriter of hydrogen research and development. The U.S. Department of Energy is now spending $150 million a year on hydrogen R&D, more than other industrialized nations.

We can thank Hawaii's congressional delegation, particularly Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, and the late Spark Matsunaga, for this feat and for championing the cause of renewable energy in the nation's capital. Hawaii leaders pushed for federal support for hydrogen R&D, and the legislation appropriating money for this hydrogen study is called the Spark M. Matsunaga Hydro-gen Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1990.

We can also congratulate our state Legislature for having the foresight more than a decade ago to provide $50,000 to the UH to "explore" the future of this field. The result was a conference, which led to a proposal, which blossomed into a $1-million-a-year research program for the University of Hawaii.

In the movie, the research is being done under the auspices of the University of Chicago. In truth, a significant amount of the nation's hydrogen research is being conducted right here at UH. A team of researchers from several colleges on the Manoa campus has formed the largest program at any university in the nation. It was ranked first in the country last year by the U.S. Department of energy.

Our research is targeting the major barriers to the everyday use of hydrogen: the cost of production and the availability of a compact, cost-effective means of storage.

In the area of production, our researchers are working in three areas:

Photoelectrochemistry. Like the scientists in "Chain Reaction," UH researchers are seeking ways to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, but we plan to use only sunlight for energy. We believe the key to economical, efficient, direct hydrogen production lies in designing photoelectrochemical systems using low-cost amorphous silicon photoelectrodes. These thin semiconductor films - actually nine films stacked one atop another, together less than one-thousandth of a millimeter thick, and deposited onto a glass or stainless steel support - could produce hydrogen from water with no additional energy input when activated by catalyst coatings and exposed to sunlight.

Photobiology. We are screening marine photosynthetic bacteria, some of which produce hydrogen as part of their normal metabolic processes, to determine their potential for hydrogen production. Using sophisticated genetic engineering techniques, UH researchers are attempting to alter the make-up of promising species to increase their output of hydrogen gas. Word of our progress is spreading: Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry is now also funding our work.

Gasification. We are testing the use of supercritical water (water at very high temperature and pressure) to "gasify" biomass into various gases, including hydrogen. UH researchers are concentrating on gasifying biomass with high moisture content - fast-growing banana trees, water hyacinth, green algae, kelp and other plants abundant in Hawaii - which are unsuitable for conventional thermochemical conversion techniques because drying it is too costly. A pressurized catalytic gasification process is being employed by the researchers to completely convert wet biomass into a hydrogen-rich synthesis gas.

Storage. The other obstacle to hydrogen use is storage. UH chemistry researchers are developing something called "non-classical" polyhydrides for use as a storage medium. This new class of materials can store and discharge hydrogen with more favorable results than conventional materials.

Altogether, these home-grown technologies could eventually lead to hydrogen's emergence as the fuel of the 21st century, and Hawaii and the University of Hawaii will have played a major role in their development.

Who knows, "Chain Reaction II'' just might be filmed in Hawaii.

Patrick Takahashi is director of the UH's Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and outgoing chairman of the U.S. Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel, which advises the secretary on hydrogen-related issues. Richard Rocheleau oversees the university's hydrogen research program and is the lead researcher on the photoelectrochemical production project.

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