Turning aluminum waste into hydrogen to generate electricity after natural disasters

Survivors of natural disasters, made more frequent by global warming, may one day make use of debris and debris left behind. Peter Godart has imagined a system to transform aluminum waste into hydrogen and thus produce electricity.

Peter Godart (New Jersey, 1992) is a postdoctoral researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, USA). His research focuses on finding new ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In concrete terms, it has developed a system that makes it possible to use aluminum waste, a very cheap, abundant and energetic material, to transform it into hydrogen, which can be used to desalinate water and produce electricity. The breakthrough comes as aluminum is piling up in landfills around the world due to recycling complications.

This new technology is particularly valuable for communities most affected by natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, fires), which are on the rise due to the climate crisis. The system could help deal with the large amount of waste from these disasters.

Godart recently traveled to Spain to participate in the international symposium The future of energy: fighting climate changeorganized by the Ramón Areces Foundation, and SINC had the opportunity to talk to him.

Before studying these climate change mitigation and adaptation technologies, you were at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Why did you change?

At JPL, I spent half my time working with the team responsible for managing the vagabond curiosity; and the other half to power systems for landers on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

One of the technologies I was working on – and which later became the basis of my doctoral research – was the use of aluminum as an energy carrier. The idea was that we had these robots that would land on Europa, which is basically a big scoop of ice cream, and then start consuming parts of themselves that they no longer needed for food. If he no longer needed his landing gear, he would put it in ice. This would begin to react and create hydrogen, which would be used to operate the robot.

Then I started to realize that I was spending all my time solving problems on other planets. This was around the time people (at least in the US) were getting excited about the possibility of sending humans to Mars and “terraforming” the Red Planet. I spent the whole day looking through the eyes of this robot on Mars, and I felt a disconnect with society’s ambitions to leave our planet: we’ve destroyed it so badly that we have to go to a other, less habitable than the current one. Suddenly I realized that I had to do something and I thought: “I have to solve this question and start thinking about the problems on Earth”.

So you developed the system that uses aluminum to generate hydrogen, which can then be converted into electricity. How works?

Aluminum reacts naturally with water, it oxidizes and this produces hydrogen and heat. When you have loose aluminum (e.g. part of your bike) and it’s raining, it doesn’t start reacting spontaneously. This is because this metal develops a strong oxide layer on the outside, which prevents it from interacting with water.

Since I want it to react, I had to find ways to break down this oxide layer, and the way we found out was to introduce a liquid alloy of gallium and indium.

What are the advantages of this technology?

Hydrogen is a good energy carrier, there is plenty for every kilo. And when it oxidizes, that is, when it burns, it only produces water, so there are no associated carbon emissions. On Earth this gas does not exist in a pure state because it is very reactive, it is always transformed into water, it is therefore necessary to provide energy to obtain it in the systems. Thus, we store energy in the form of hydrogen.

But once we’ve generated hydrogen gas, “how do we store it?” We can do this in a large tank, but we will only be able to achieve an effective stocking density of 5%. This can be increased significantly by liquefying the hydrogen, cooling it, and subjecting it to high pressure.

Although another way to get it is to store it as water and then produce hydrogen exactly when you need it. That’s what we do with aluminum. That way, if you need hydrogen, I can give you aluminum to react with water and produce it. In addition, this reaction makes it possible to store hydrogen with an energy density five times greater than that of liquid hydrogen.

What are its possible applications?

This is very useful in the event of a natural disaster, as you may need to run a generator. It may be in your house and you probably have water handy. If you live in one of these island states (a Caribbean island, for example), you are surrounded by water and it also works with the sea, and there are even benefits associated with using water salty.

What types of services?

We knew that aluminum reacted with water during the introduction of gallium and indium, but not how to recover them. I discovered the first way to recover these metals, making this process inexpensive for the first time. And the only additive needed is sodium chloride, so salt water. By reacting with seawater and controlling other physical parameters, I can recover over 99% of these liquid metals.

If a natural disaster occurs, could we use this system, or has it only been tested in the laboratory so far?

For now, it is only used in the laboratory, but I have just created a company where we will start manufacturing these devices. The last big hurdle was figuring out how to get the catalyst back, because otherwise a lot of money would be wasted.

Our path to commercialization is basically finding ways to sell hydrogen at a higher “premium” price to people who may not need it in an emergency. And then use those advantages to develop the technologies that we would send to countries affected by climate change.

Could other waste than aluminum be used in the same way?

There’s tons of hydrogen in plastics, so what I’d like to do, even though it’s a completely different technology, is start to understand how we can turn plastic into hydrogen as well.

As someone looking for solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, what do you think of the current situation?

The climate has already changed, it is not something that will happen in the future. On the one hand, it scares me because I don’t see that we are putting a lot of effort into solving it. For this reason, part of my research focuses on whether the technologies we develop can also be used for adaptation to climate change.

Another reason I’m so interested in energy from waste is that the communities that suffer the worst effects of climate change and pollution are also the ones that have to deal with all the waste. Perhaps this technology can give them an economic boost, because not only would they help solve their local pollution problem, but they could also benefit from the collection and better disposal of this waste. But we still have a long way to go.

Do you think we are running out of time to deal with this global problem?

We ran out of time 20 years ago. We have already suffered losses, but we must prevent them from getting worse. I think we are finally moving in a direction and at a speed where we can prevent climate change from getting worse. Even what is happening with Russia and Ukraine… I hope this will convince Europe to get out of fossil fuels much more quickly.

In addition to being a researcher, you also participate in numerous awareness-raising activities. Is it important to communicate science to citizens?

It is important to communicate science in general, but it is even more important to do so in a social context. I think we need to reach students early and teach them ethics along with content. We need them to start asking themselves what they are going to do with this knowledge once they have it. They will be the ones working at Exxon and Shell, for example, and they may be the ones deciding which technologies go forward and which don’t get funded. If these people haven’t learned the implications of these technologies, they can’t be blamed for not choosing the ones that are better for the world.

You are also a jazz musician, do you think that science and music are linked?

Yes, at least as far as the creative aspects are concerned, since they use the same parts of the brain. When you play jazz with other people, it’s about making associations in real time and playing with what other people are doing. In science, the same thing happens: information is obtained, it is synthesized at the time and new conclusions are drawn.

In fact, the research I conducted during my master’s degree began when I went to Puerto Rico on tour with saxophonist Miguel Zenon. While I was there, I saw the aluminum scraps and that’s what inspired me. I think it would be good for society if more scientists and engineers got involved in artistic or cultural activities, so that they could interact with people who could use their innovations.



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