Nicky Blackburn
September 17, 2006, Updated September 13, 2012

Dr. Tareq Abu-Hamed in the Clore Garden of Science at the Weizmann Institute with young visitors from his village.

With fears for the environment growing and the price of fossil fuels rising, a team of Israeli researchers working in Israel and the US is working on a new emission-free method to run your car – with water.

Water may seem like an unlikely source of fuel, but in fact it is full of hydrogen – a gas that many experts believe can be used in future to power internal combustion engines and generate electricity. The only problem with hydrogen, however, is that production of the flammable gas is inefficient, expensive and environmentally unfriendly, as well as being extremely difficult to store and transport.

Dr. Tareq Abu-Hamed, an Israeli scientist currently at the University of Minnesota, and colleagues, Professor Jacob Karni, and Michael Epstein, head of the Solar Facility at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, have developed a new method to produce hydrogen fuel cheaply, efficiently and safely while at the same time addressing current onboard storage or transportation problems.

The scientists use the element boron, a lightweight semi-metallic element, to react with water to produce hydrogen that can be burnt in an internal combustion engine or fed to a fuel cell to generate electricity. The goal is to create hydrogen on demand – enough hydrogen to match the needs of the car’s engine.

“Boron and water can be stored separately in two containers. Mixing them in a controlled fashion will release hydrogen as demanded by the engine,” says Abu-Hamed.

According to the New Scientist, today’s hydrogen-fuelled cars rely on stocks of gas produced in centralized plants and distributed in either liquefied or compressed form via refueling stations. Liquefaction takes about 40 percent of the energy content of the stored hydrogen, while the energy density of the gas, even when compressed, is so low that it is unlikely to ever be able to fuel a normal car.
Hydrogen-on-demand removes the need for costly hydrogen pipelines and distribution infrastructure, and also makes hydrogen vehicles safer, the New Scientist adds.

According to Abu-Hamed, an Israeli Arab from east Jerusalem, there are no CO2 emissions from this process. The only by-product is boron oxide, which can be removed from the car, and converted back into boron for re-use. Abu-Hamed is now working on an innovative new method of doing just this in a solar-powered plant.
Abu-Hamed and his team estimate that to create the same energy content as a 10 gallon tank of gasoline, the car would have to carry 40 pounds of boron and 12 gallons of water. Together they would produce 11 pounds of hydrogen – enough to fuel an average car for 220 miles.

While Abu-Hamed’s work is still only at research stage, a functioning prototype is expected by 2009, and Abu-Hamed believes that efforts to commercialize the technology will begin in the next one to two years.

“This will become a reality,” Abu-Hamed told ISRAEL21c by phone from the US. “This is a very necessary technology.”

One of the problems with this method is that boron is expensive, but Abu-Hamed believes that the use of solar energy to recycle the boron, will reduce costs substantially.

Abu-Hamed was born in the village of Sur Bahir in east Jerusalem. During his youth, he spent his summers picking fruit on nearby kibbutzim, working side by side with people from all over the world. There he learned how to speak English, and discovered other cultures.

Abu-Hamed joined the environmental sciences and energy research department at the Weizmann Institute some three years ago, after taking his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Ankara University in Turkey. He was attracted to the institute because of its reputation for world-class research and such resources as the solar tower, one of the world’s most advanced facilities for solar energy research.

Abu-Hamed joined Weizmann at the height of the intifada, but despite the worsening political climate, he found the staff welcoming. “At the Weizmann Institute, science is the only thing that matters,” he admits.

Abu-Hamed moved to Minnesota earlier this year, where he is taking second post-doctoral fellowship. In the US he plans to continue working on the hydrogen research with his Israeli colleagues and is now looking for funding to pay for this work.

During his studies at Weizmann, Abu-Hamed worked hard to promote Israeli-Palestinian understanding. Every summer he organized and accompanied tours of the Clore Garden of Science on the Weizmann campus for Palestinian children attending summer programs in his village. Some 300 children aged between nine and 15 took part in these tours.

“My goal was to show these children how the scientific community works, what the Israelis are doing, and what they might do in the future,” says Abu-Hamed, who regards himself as a positive role model for the children. “I felt that if I could show them that it is natural for us to live and work together that it would create more cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, and help the process of peace.”

Abu Hamed believes that the future holds more cooperation, but it will require change and a new generation willing to support it.

“We always have to be positive and to look ahead with hope, and work to turn this hope into a real and living thing. The only way to do this is by sitting together, talking together, and solving problems together,” he added.

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