The Hazer group (www.hazergroup.com.au), a West Australian based technology company, is developing a much cheaper and more effective way to make hydrogen based on original research done at the University of Western Australia. This is good news for our planet and the problems we have with climate change. It is also a great example of university-industry collaborations, and I would really like to see many more such collaborations in Macau.
Hydrogen gas (H2) is an important industrial chemical. It is widely used in oil refining and the manufacture of fertilizers and explosives. There are also exciting potential new uses for hydrogen in fuel cells in energy generation and storage and as an alternative to batteries in long range electric vehicles. Fuel cells combine hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to directly generate electricity and give off water as the only waste. Hydrogen production is now a steadily growing US$100 billion global industry.
Unfortunately, hydrogen is a very small and very light molecule that is difficult to store safely. You may remember the Hindenburg disaster in the 1930’s. Zeppelins, effectively hydrogen filled balloons, were becoming a popular type of air transport at the time but never recovered from this disaster.
The popular steam methane reformation process currently used industrially to make hydrogen gas from methane produces carbon dioxide as a waste which is vented to the atmosphere and severely damages to our environment. Globally, this is an important source of damaging carbon dioxide emissions.
By contrast, the Hazer process is the catalytic decomposition of methane using iron ore as the catalyst. It uses the same methane feedstock but converts it to hydrogen and carbon with no carbon dioxide waste gas. As part of the process the carbon can be made into different kinds of graphite. Graphite is already an important industrial chemical that is widely used in many types of battery and to make all sorts of carbon fiber products.
Researchers are also starting to successfully develop super-capacitors based on graphite which are an important complement to batteries in electric vehicles and other energy generation/consumption situations. Batteries rely on relatively slow chemical processes to store large amounts of electric charge, which is why your mobile phone battery takes so long to recharge. By contrast capacitors simply store electrons as surface charges so they can be filled very quickly but cannot hold as much energy as a battery.
Demand for graphite/carbon fiber is growing rapidly and it is expected to become a large global industry.
Thus, this new Hazer process totally eliminates a very dangerous waste (carbon dioxide) from the production of hydrogen from methane and at the same time creates a new low cost source for graphite. Environmentalists always talk about (1) eliminate wastes where possible, (2) if you cannot eliminate a waste at least reduce it, (3) if you must create waste then recycle it to become a new valuable product.
While I do not believe that there is a large role for Macau universities in fundamental research to develop new chemical processes and the like, I firmly believe that that there are many areas where industry-university collaborations in Macau could be beneficial. For example, the hotel industry is notorious for its lack of research and development but Macau universities are quite capable of contributing. For instance, I am sure that Macau universities and technology companies could collaborate to develop self-room booking and check-in/check-out software for hotels – websites for booking and paying for rooms combined with smartphone apps that act as room keys, and so on.