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Published on November 9th, 2008 | by Nick Chambers

66

Simple Device Invented in 1833 May Lead to Cheap Hydrogen

November 9th, 2008 by  
 

A modern team of Italian researchers has uncovered a device invented by fellow Italian G.D. Botto in 1833 that can be used to generate hydrogen with inexpensive, everyday parts. By reflecting sunlight from two parabolic mirrors onto a hollow tube wrapped in metal and filled with water, the device generates enough electricity to produce hydrogen through electrolysis. Theoretically, the device is so simple that anybody could build it in their garage.

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In the original Botto device, alternating links of platinum and iron were connected in a chain that was then wrapped around a wooden rod. By heating one side of the rod with a flame, Botto was able to generate an electric current in the chain through thermocoupling of the two metals.

Botto’s original intent was to simply show that he could produce electricity using a thermocouple of two metals. Making hydrogen bubbles in water through electrolysis was his way of visually confirming an electric current was present. But, after uncovering the original Botto work, the modern Italian team realized the device had a different kind of potential in today’s energy-dependent world: a cheap way to make hydrogen without advanced manufacturing techniques using off-the-shelf components.

With some modern thinking, the Italian team was able to modify Botto’s device in rather ingenious ways. Firstly, they replaced the flame that Botto used to produce heat with parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays on the tube. Secondly, they replaced the rather expensive platinum metal with copper. And thirdly, in order to create a greater temperature difference between the heated side of the tube and the cool side of the tube (greater temperature difference equals larger current), they ran water through the center of it.

The researchers estimate that, although the power output for their experimental device is small (only about 20 mW), it could generate enough current to produce hydrogen gas through electrolysis of water. Given that the device is scalable, I’m guessing it would simply be a matter of daisy chaining enough of them together to generate the required amount of hydrogen.

The researchers also suggest that rather than using a thermocouple of two metals, it would be more efficient to use a thermoelectric semiconductor to obtain a much higher power output. I’m just waiting for them to release a design on the internet so that we can all start experimenting with hydrogen production.

Image Credit: De Luca, R.; Ganci, S.; and Zozzaro, P. “Revisiting an idea of G D Botto: a solar thermoelectric generator.” Eur. J. Phys. 29 (2008) 1295-1300.

Source: PhysOrg.com


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Not your traditional car guy.



  • Nate

    Wait, couldn’t you just produce electricity with this device, and skip the inefficient hydrogen step?

  • Nate

    Wait, couldn’t you just produce electricity with this device, and skip the inefficient hydrogen step?

  • Nate

    Wait, couldn’t you just produce electricity with this device, and skip the inefficient hydrogen step?

  • Nick Chambers

    Nate,

    Many questions need to be answered, nonetheless it’s still an interesting development worth looking into more.

  • “Theoretically, the device is so simple that anybody could build it in their garage.”

    Theoretically…really? Based on what theory?

  • “Theoretically, the device is so simple that anybody could build it in their garage.”

    Theoretically…really? Based on what theory?

  • Nick Chambers

    The theory of colloquialism, Elwood. You know the one that states:

    “Using the term ‘theoretically’ to describe how something can be accomplished does not always refer to the scientific definition of the word ‘theory,’ but rather to a colloquial expression meaning something along the lines of ‘quite possibly,’ or ‘given the simplistic nature of the construction.'”

    According to Websters, “Theoretically” means “according to an ideal or assumed set of facts or principles.”

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theoretically

    If that’s really what you picked up on to criticize, I’d suggest reading the rest of the post.

  • Paul C from Austin

    Nate- you are correct in that directly using the electricity generated would be more efficient, but the idea of producing hydrogen is for energy storage, whether to use that solar power at night, or in your EV, by converting that stored energy back into electricity on demand. What I do not understand, is why not just use current PV panels, or existing solar thermal options, instead of this- what makes it cheaper or more efficient than modern electricity generation from existing technologies. I understand that the parts may be ‘off the shelf,’ but that does not necessarily make it cheaper than buying a PV panel for the amount of electricity generated.

  • Paul C from Austin

    Nate- you are correct in that directly using the electricity generated would be more efficient, but the idea of producing hydrogen is for energy storage, whether to use that solar power at night, or in your EV, by converting that stored energy back into electricity on demand. What I do not understand, is why not just use current PV panels, or existing solar thermal options, instead of this- what makes it cheaper or more efficient than modern electricity generation from existing technologies. I understand that the parts may be ‘off the shelf,’ but that does not necessarily make it cheaper than buying a PV panel for the amount of electricity generated.

  • Paul C from Austin

    Nate- you are correct in that directly using the electricity generated would be more efficient, but the idea of producing hydrogen is for energy storage, whether to use that solar power at night, or in your EV, by converting that stored energy back into electricity on demand. What I do not understand, is why not just use current PV panels, or existing solar thermal options, instead of this- what makes it cheaper or more efficient than modern electricity generation from existing technologies. I understand that the parts may be ‘off the shelf,’ but that does not necessarily make it cheaper than buying a PV panel for the amount of electricity generated.

  • Btown

    Elwood got told.

  • Btown

    Elwood got told.

  • This is a form of a thermopile – but not in the most efficient way.

    Generating energy from the sun using solar cells is expensive. Storing the electricity requires expensive batteries.

    Storing hydrogen in compresed form is a good alternative.

    Also the hydrogen could be converted to hydrocarbon liquid fuel for even more effective storage.

    I see a lot of silly comments. Pease stop wasting your time an ours.

    The energy problem is serious for all of us.

  • This is a form of a thermopile – but not in the most efficient way.

    Generating energy from the sun using solar cells is expensive. Storing the electricity requires expensive batteries.

    Storing hydrogen in compresed form is a good alternative.

    Also the hydrogen could be converted to hydrocarbon liquid fuel for even more effective storage.

    I see a lot of silly comments. Pease stop wasting your time an ours.

    The energy problem is serious for all of us.

  • eg180

    Yeah, Elwood. Ya bastard.

  • eg180

    Yeah, Elwood. Ya bastard.

  • eg180

    Yeah, Elwood. Ya bastard.

  • nico

    Yeah, the key user of hydrocarbons in the US is transportation, 2/3, and electricity itself doesn’t have many good storage medium, especially for remote long hauls like naval shipping. As such, hydrogen is generating a lot of interest more fore its energy storage ability, so a light converting device that goes straight to hydrogen conversion is actually a very intriguing avenue to explore….

  • nico

    Yeah, the key user of hydrocarbons in the US is transportation, 2/3, and electricity itself doesn’t have many good storage medium, especially for remote long hauls like naval shipping. As such, hydrogen is generating a lot of interest more fore its energy storage ability, so a light converting device that goes straight to hydrogen conversion is actually a very intriguing avenue to explore….

  • nico

    Yeah, the key user of hydrocarbons in the US is transportation, 2/3, and electricity itself doesn’t have many good storage medium, especially for remote long hauls like naval shipping. As such, hydrogen is generating a lot of interest more fore its energy storage ability, so a light converting device that goes straight to hydrogen conversion is actually a very intriguing avenue to explore….

  • Joe

    Sounds like an excellent discovery.

    Amazing that this tech was originally produced in the 1800s and that only now is its full potential being revealed.

  • Joe

    Sounds like an excellent discovery.

    Amazing that this tech was originally produced in the 1800s and that only now is its full potential being revealed.

  • I’m interested about Hydrogen fule cell.

    If possibly we can produce the Hydrogen

    too cheap. Hydrogen with solar process.

    “The Sun Hydrogen” are the really alter

    native power soruce in the future for our world.

    Sincerely your

    Sun Sudkaew

    11/11/2008

  • I’m interested about Hydrogen fule cell.

    If possibly we can produce the Hydrogen

    too cheap. Hydrogen with solar process.

    “The Sun Hydrogen” are the really alter

    native power soruce in the future for our world.

    Sincerely your

    Sun Sudkaew

    11/11/2008

  • I’m interested about Hydrogen fule cell.

    If possibly we can produce the Hydrogen

    too cheap. Hydrogen with solar process.

    “The Sun Hydrogen” are the really alter

    native power soruce in the future for our world.

    Sincerely your

    Sun Sudkaew

    11/11/2008

  • Doug

    Are we sure we really want a bunch of people creating hydrogen generators in their garages? Personally sounds like a recipe for disaster. For some reason all I can hear is ” Hey watch this.BOOM!”

  • Doug

    Are we sure we really want a bunch of people creating hydrogen generators in their garages? Personally sounds like a recipe for disaster. For some reason all I can hear is ” Hey watch this.BOOM!”

  • Ookii Mamoru

    Elwood

    From looking at ATMs (Amateur Telescope Makers) work, and doing some myself. Most of this project can very easily be put together in a garage.

    The mirrors and mirror mounts are cave mans work at best. Having seen homemade heaters for telescopes, the rod is simple child’s play. Tracking the sun is also possible for the amateur.

    Now I have some questions about the material for the tube. Depending on the size of the mirrors. A PVC tube should do the trick with attachment..

    From this prospective, Theory has been tested time and time again. The practice and application just needs to be modified and changed with very little effort.

    Water pumps are plentiful. Execpt for the glass blanks, grit, and mirror coatings. All this stuff could be picked up at Home Depot.

    Where I get lost is the Hydrogen collection. How do you separate the Hydrogen and Oxygen, and how do you store the Hydrogen for later use in a garage setting? I

    OM

  • Ookii Mamoru

    Elwood

    From looking at ATMs (Amateur Telescope Makers) work, and doing some myself. Most of this project can very easily be put together in a garage.

    The mirrors and mirror mounts are cave mans work at best. Having seen homemade heaters for telescopes, the rod is simple child’s play. Tracking the sun is also possible for the amateur.

    Now I have some questions about the material for the tube. Depending on the size of the mirrors. A PVC tube should do the trick with attachment..

    From this prospective, Theory has been tested time and time again. The practice and application just needs to be modified and changed with very little effort.

    Water pumps are plentiful. Execpt for the glass blanks, grit, and mirror coatings. All this stuff could be picked up at Home Depot.

    Where I get lost is the Hydrogen collection. How do you separate the Hydrogen and Oxygen, and how do you store the Hydrogen for later use in a garage setting? I

    OM

  • Ookii Mamoru

    Elwood

    From looking at ATMs (Amateur Telescope Makers) work, and doing some myself. Most of this project can very easily be put together in a garage.

    The mirrors and mirror mounts are cave mans work at best. Having seen homemade heaters for telescopes, the rod is simple child’s play. Tracking the sun is also possible for the amateur.

    Now I have some questions about the material for the tube. Depending on the size of the mirrors. A PVC tube should do the trick with attachment..

    From this prospective, Theory has been tested time and time again. The practice and application just needs to be modified and changed with very little effort.

    Water pumps are plentiful. Execpt for the glass blanks, grit, and mirror coatings. All this stuff could be picked up at Home Depot.

    Where I get lost is the Hydrogen collection. How do you separate the Hydrogen and Oxygen, and how do you store the Hydrogen for later use in a garage setting? I

    OM

  • Kevin

    20 mW is 0.002 Watts. Youd need 500 just to make a watt. 20 Hp for 1 hour is roughly 1500 watt hours. Figuring 5 hours of working time, you’ll need 300 watts of these devices or about 15,000 of them. Somehow I don’t think anyone is going to be making that many “off the shelf”, theoretically or otherwise, even if you scale them to where you’d only need 500 of them. There are vastly better ways to do this.

  • Kevin

    20 mW is 0.002 Watts. Youd need 500 just to make a watt. 20 Hp for 1 hour is roughly 1500 watt hours. Figuring 5 hours of working time, you’ll need 300 watts of these devices or about 15,000 of them. Somehow I don’t think anyone is going to be making that many “off the shelf”, theoretically or otherwise, even if you scale them to where you’d only need 500 of them. There are vastly better ways to do this.

  • Sean

    Wow, how incredibly stupid. It’s called thermoelectrics and they’ve been around for four decades. Dissimilar metals? Um, look in your furnace for a ‘thermocouple’.

    What exactly is the innovation here? The use of solar as heat source for the hot side? I did that when I was thirteen after I cannibalized a coleman cooler for the TEC unit.

  • Sean

    Wow, how incredibly stupid. It’s called thermoelectrics and they’ve been around for four decades. Dissimilar metals? Um, look in your furnace for a ‘thermocouple’.

    What exactly is the innovation here? The use of solar as heat source for the hot side? I did that when I was thirteen after I cannibalized a coleman cooler for the TEC unit.

  • Sean

    Wow, how incredibly stupid. It’s called thermoelectrics and they’ve been around for four decades. Dissimilar metals? Um, look in your furnace for a ‘thermocouple’.

    What exactly is the innovation here? The use of solar as heat source for the hot side? I did that when I was thirteen after I cannibalized a coleman cooler for the TEC unit.

  • its so nice to accidently passing this site, i was just browsing and led to this interesting topic. somehow this topic is relevant to the bubbling discussion in my country, regards and good luck

  • wope

    Italians are great in design and absolutely terrible in conceptualization, they invented vaporware starting with Leonardo davinci.

  • wope

    Italians are great in design and absolutely terrible in conceptualization, they invented vaporware starting with Leonardo davinci.

  • wope

    Italians are great in design and absolutely terrible in conceptualization, they invented vaporware starting with Leonardo davinci.

  • yosaggregator1

    gud one

  • yosaggregator1

    gud one

  • yosaggregator1

    gud one

  • Rich

    This is absolutely absurd! The actuality of the fact is that it produces insignifigant figures of electricity. I’ve seen real life chem researchers on this and they can’t find anything to get the metal to be reactive enough to be WORTH mass producing

  • Rich

    This is absolutely absurd! The actuality of the fact is that it produces insignifigant figures of electricity. I’ve seen real life chem researchers on this and they can’t find anything to get the metal to be reactive enough to be WORTH mass producing

  • Rich

    This is absolutely absurd! The actuality of the fact is that it produces insignifigant figures of electricity. I’ve seen real life chem researchers on this and they can’t find anything to get the metal to be reactive enough to be WORTH mass producing

  • Nice post… always good to see old ideas revisited and re-imagined using alternative materials, and nanoscale designs to increase surface area and reduce amount of metals needed without compromising on the simplicity of the design. Would love to hear more from researchers on potential of utility scaling?

    Garry G

    Editor

    The Energy Roadmap.com

    http://www.theenergyroadmap.com

  • Nice post… always good to see old ideas revisited and re-imagined using alternative materials, and nanoscale designs to increase surface area and reduce amount of metals needed without compromising on the simplicity of the design. Would love to hear more from researchers on potential of utility scaling?

    Garry G

    Editor

    The Energy Roadmap.com

    http://www.theenergyroadmap.com

  • Nice post… always good to see old ideas revisited and re-imagined using alternative materials, and nanoscale designs to increase surface area and reduce amount of metals needed without compromising on the simplicity of the design. Would love to hear more from researchers on potential of utility scaling?

    Garry G

    Editor

    The Energy Roadmap.com

    http://www.theenergyroadmap.com

  • The only use of this comparatively inefficient device would be for countries that have no contact with the outside world yet have all of the resources needed to build this. However, why not just build a simple thermal solar system and run a steam generator? If you can make a metal thermocouple you surely can make a simple wire wound electrical generator. It’s sure to be many more times more efficient at converting the sun into electricity.

    This is a fun science experiment at best until we are shown the efficiency and cost numbers. I expect them to be uncompetitive compared to even other proven and extremely simple systems.

  • The only use of this comparatively inefficient device would be for countries that have no contact with the outside world yet have all of the resources needed to build this. However, why not just build a simple thermal solar system and run a steam generator? If you can make a metal thermocouple you surely can make a simple wire wound electrical generator. It’s sure to be many more times more efficient at converting the sun into electricity.

    This is a fun science experiment at best until we are shown the efficiency and cost numbers. I expect them to be uncompetitive compared to even other proven and extremely simple systems.

  • The only use of this comparatively inefficient device would be for countries that have no contact with the outside world yet have all of the resources needed to build this. However, why not just build a simple thermal solar system and run a steam generator? If you can make a metal thermocouple you surely can make a simple wire wound electrical generator. It’s sure to be many more times more efficient at converting the sun into electricity.

    This is a fun science experiment at best until we are shown the efficiency and cost numbers. I expect them to be uncompetitive compared to even other proven and extremely simple systems.

  • Ray

    Nate hit it right on the head. Hydrogen is an energy sucker. Just produce energy, not Hydrogen! LOL

  • Ray

    Nate hit it right on the head. Hydrogen is an energy sucker. Just produce energy, not Hydrogen! LOL

  • Ray

    Nate hit it right on the head. Hydrogen is an energy sucker. Just produce energy, not Hydrogen! LOL

  • If I’m going to pick on anything in this article it would have to be the headline. You have deliberately sensationalised a dull and uninteresting event in a shameless attempt to draw more readers to your website.

    What actually happened here was a couple of scientists were looking through some old papers with today’s green perspective. They saw something mildly interesting and speculated whether it could be adapted to be useful by today’s standards. That’s not worthy of the headline you gave it.

    Actually, I’m going to pick on another bit of the article. 20mW is not just small. It’s minuscule. Scientists and engineers are known for understating things in conversational articles. It’s important that you understand this when reading articles written by scientists.

    To illustrate just how small 20mW is, we receive roughly 1KW of energy from the sun per square metre. In order to capture 20mW of electricity using conventional solar panels at 20% efficiency you would need a single solar panel that was 3mm x 3mm. There is no indication of how large this device is but I’m guessing that it is larger than 3mm x 3mm. If we’re generous and call it 10cm x 10cm then it has an efficiency of 0.2%. Daisy chaining enough of them together would cover the earth several times over which is somewhat impractical.

    When the scientist summed up at the end of the PhysOrg article, the main point he was making is that we should be getting energy directly from the sun, not that this device was the one that was going to make that goal feasible.

  • If I’m going to pick on anything in this article it would have to be the headline. You have deliberately sensationalised a dull and uninteresting event in a shameless attempt to draw more readers to your website.

    What actually happened here was a couple of scientists were looking through some old papers with today’s green perspective. They saw something mildly interesting and speculated whether it could be adapted to be useful by today’s standards. That’s not worthy of the headline you gave it.

    Actually, I’m going to pick on another bit of the article. 20mW is not just small. It’s minuscule. Scientists and engineers are known for understating things in conversational articles. It’s important that you understand this when reading articles written by scientists.

    To illustrate just how small 20mW is, we receive roughly 1KW of energy from the sun per square metre. In order to capture 20mW of electricity using conventional solar panels at 20% efficiency you would need a single solar panel that was 3mm x 3mm. There is no indication of how large this device is but I’m guessing that it is larger than 3mm x 3mm. If we’re generous and call it 10cm x 10cm then it has an efficiency of 0.2%. Daisy chaining enough of them together would cover the earth several times over which is somewhat impractical.

    When the scientist summed up at the end of the PhysOrg article, the main point he was making is that we should be getting energy directly from the sun, not that this device was the one that was going to make that goal feasible.

  • If I’m going to pick on anything in this article it would have to be the headline. You have deliberately sensationalised a dull and uninteresting event in a shameless attempt to draw more readers to your website.

    What actually happened here was a couple of scientists were looking through some old papers with today’s green perspective. They saw something mildly interesting and speculated whether it could be adapted to be useful by today’s standards. That’s not worthy of the headline you gave it.

    Actually, I’m going to pick on another bit of the article. 20mW is not just small. It’s minuscule. Scientists and engineers are known for understating things in conversational articles. It’s important that you understand this when reading articles written by scientists.

    To illustrate just how small 20mW is, we receive roughly 1KW of energy from the sun per square metre. In order to capture 20mW of electricity using conventional solar panels at 20% efficiency you would need a single solar panel that was 3mm x 3mm. There is no indication of how large this device is but I’m guessing that it is larger than 3mm x 3mm. If we’re generous and call it 10cm x 10cm then it has an efficiency of 0.2%. Daisy chaining enough of them together would cover the earth several times over which is somewhat impractical.

    When the scientist summed up at the end of the PhysOrg article, the main point he was making is that we should be getting energy directly from the sun, not that this device was the one that was going to make that goal feasible.

  • That’s awesome. It might be time to start digging into older scientific archives of everything to see if inventions can be rediscovered with a modern approach to help make the world better.

  • That’s awesome. It might be time to start digging into older scientific archives of everything to see if inventions can be rediscovered with a modern approach to help make the world better.

  • nice device great post

  • nice device great post

  • This is just dumb!

    Thermocouples are expensive and inefficient. Replacing them with standard high power density solar cells would produce several times more power from the same solar collector setup.

  • Uncle B

    H2 is a valuable fuel-cellable gas! Gimme enough of it during the day from a home-brew generator, I could keep my wrinlkled old butt warm at night – for free, off-line by my Post (GRD) great republican depression humanure and compost fed veggie garden! G d is good to provide such amazing secrets to the uber-slothful, sinful and immoral American people! I wonder how large a bank of gadgets like this it takes to provide a practical, usable amount of H2 gas? The fuel price, solar, is free, now what? Maybe some Chinese engineering student can figure it out instead of going to a beer bash, football game, cruise in his sports car or having a sexual interlude with his bitch, or filling out Microsoft applications like the American boys, and we can get some answers? Seems to me going from Solar to H2 in one step might fit many useful circumstances.

  • Uncle B

    H2 is a valuable fuel-cellable gas! Gimme enough of it during the day from a home-brew generator, I could keep my wrinlkled old butt warm at night – for free, off-line by my Post (GRD) great republican depression humanure and compost fed veggie garden! G d is good to provide such amazing secrets to the uber-slothful, sinful and immoral American people! I wonder how large a bank of gadgets like this it takes to provide a practical, usable amount of H2 gas? The fuel price, solar, is free, now what? Maybe some Chinese engineering student can figure it out instead of going to a beer bash, football game, cruise in his sports car or having a sexual interlude with his bitch, or filling out Microsoft applications like the American boys, and we can get some answers? Seems to me going from Solar to H2 in one step might fit many useful circumstances.

  • Uncle B

    H2 is a valuable fuel-cellable gas! Gimme enough of it during the day from a home-brew generator, I could keep my wrinlkled old butt warm at night – for free, off-line by my Post (GRD) great republican depression humanure and compost fed veggie garden! G d is good to provide such amazing secrets to the uber-slothful, sinful and immoral American people! I wonder how large a bank of gadgets like this it takes to provide a practical, usable amount of H2 gas? The fuel price, solar, is free, now what? Maybe some Chinese engineering student can figure it out instead of going to a beer bash, football game, cruise in his sports car or having a sexual interlude with his bitch, or filling out Microsoft applications like the American boys, and we can get some answers? Seems to me going from Solar to H2 in one step might fit many useful circumstances.

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