July 10 - If the rising price of oil is hurting your budget, don't worry. Scientists in Australia have found a way to turn seawater into fuel. Lester Ranby has more.
Imagine you could power your house and car using seawater. That might become a reality, as scientists from the ACES centre at the University of Wollongong in Australia have found a new way to split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen, and use those gases as fuel. ACES Centre Director Professor Gordon Wallace., (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR GORDON WALLACE, DIRECTOR, ACES CENTRE, SAYING: "The obvious abundance of seawater makes it attractive as a fuel to go into these new devices that we're creating, and the ability to create or generate hydrogen and oxygen just by simply using sunlight is a tremendous breakthrough," Scientists have been able to split water since the 1800s. Passing an electric current through the water breaks its molecules apart to form hydrogen and oxygen gas. But the amount of electricity required was so great that they'd have to put more energy in than what they could get out, making it impractical. The water also had to be very pure. Seawater is full of impurities, which Professor David Officer says, cause problems. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR DAVID OFFICER, CHIEF MATERIALS INVESTIGATOR, ACES CENTRE, SAYING: "Say for example, if you wanted to split seawater, it's got salt in it, and if you put a large amount of energy into splitting the seawater you would produce a very poisonous gas, chlorine." To achieve this breakthrough, scientists first looked at how nature was doing it. Plants and trees are able to split water in their leaves. A substance called chlorophyll, which gives plants their green colour, captures sunlight as it strikes the leaf, turning it into energy to power the process of splitting water. The Wollongong scientists have developed a flexible polymer film that mimics the process in leaves. It requires only a small electrical current to run, because it harnesses the power of sunlight to split the seawater. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR DAVID OFFICER, CHIEF MATERIALS INVESTIGATOR, ACES CENTRE, SAYING: "And so we've been able to make an artificial chlorophyll, and put that artificial chlorophyll onto this plastic material here, and by applying much much less energy than we would have had to in the past, but in the process of course if we're using seawater in the cell, we're not now producing that poisonous toxic gas chlorine," Because the new system uses seawater, it won't be a burden on the freshwater supplies of cities and towns. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR GORDON WALLACE, DIRECTOR, ACES CENTRE, SAYING: "And the ability to use seawater, of course, circumvents one of the big limitations of water splitting at the moment, and that is the need to use fairly pure water supplies. It's a tremendous breakthrough to be able to use this as the fuel going into these cells,". The scientists expect cars and homes will one day be powered by water splitting devices and hydrogen fuel cells. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR GORDON WALLACE, DIRECTOR, ACES CENTRE, SAYING: "Given the recent developments, and the abundance of seawater, it's interesting to think that just a bucket full of this material could provide the energy needs for a household for a day." . The world's oceans present an almost unlimited source of hydrogen that could go a long way to solving our energy needs. Now there's a much more efficient way to harvest it.