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The Osgood File
CBS Radio Network

10/20/2000: In the search for technologies that lessen the environmental impact of cars, the latest advance comes from a most unlikely source: pond scum. U.C. Berkeley professor Tasios Melis has found that pond scum, or primitive green algae, produces hydrogen gas when deprived of sulfur during photosynthesis. Unlike more expensive, polluting fossil fuels, hydrogen is a popular alternative because its only emission is pure water.
According to Melis, the cars of tomorrow, may run on hydrogen derived from algae processed in large tanks that would replace today's oil refineries. These environmentally friendly cars will carry hydrogen fuel cells that catalyze hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity and water, the former powering the car and the latter ejected as exhaust. Currently, Melis is working to develop a technique to dramatically increase the amount of hydrogen that pond scum can produce. His goal is to produce enough hydrogen from a small pond of algae to continually run a dozen hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
Tim Lipman, a post-doctoral researcher at U.C. Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, agrees that one of the largest obstacles in using algae is the difficulty in producing enough hydrogen to be commercially viable. Today's prototype hydrogen cars use hydrogen produced from natural gas at central plants, since this is currently the most economical way to supply the fuel. However, efforts are focusing on ohter means of producing hydrogen, and even forming it on-board the vehicles from methanol or a new type of reformulated gas. Lipman is optimistic about the potential of algae, because unlike petroleum it is a renewable source of hydrogen. However, he says, the commercial application of this technology remains many years away. While both Melis and Lipman can't say when a hydrogen fuel-cell car that runs on pond scum might hit the consumer market, they remain excited at the prospect of a completely renewable, zero-emission fuel.

At the time this story aired, Tim Lipman was the Associate Director of the Fuel Cell Vehicle Center, U.C. Davis. He is now a post-doctoral researcher at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab of the Energy and Resources Group at U.C. Berkeley.
CONTACTS: Tasios Melis, Ph.D: Professor
University of California at Berkeley
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
111 Koshland Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-3102
Phone: (510) 642-8166
Fax: (510) 642-4995
Tim Lipman, Ph.D: Researcher
Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab
Energy and Resources Group, U.C. Berkeley

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