Finding A Hydrogen Future

It’s practically sci-fi novel material: a hydrogen airplane that can stay aloft for days on end. But such a craft is just the latest project in the works at Oak Park company REB Research.

REB is the brainchild of New York native Dr. Robert Buxbaum, who’s been working out of metro Detroit since 1991. Buxbaum’s main focus in research and design is hydrogen, from loftier concepts like the hydrogen plane to more commonplace applications like hydrogen generators and car refueling stations.

REB specializes in designing and building new types of metal membranes, which are integral to the process of refining materials into pure hydrogen.

“It’s like the filter when you make coffee,” Buxbaum says. “The stuff you want goes through and the stuff you don’t want stays behind. My favorite thing to make hydrogen from is wood alcohol, so the carbon dioxide stays behind, and the hydrogen goes through.”

Hydrogen has intrigued Buxbaum since he was in grad school at Princeton. “I thought it was fascinating, some of the properties it had and how you could use those properties,” he says. “That’s why you can ice skate. It’s a very peculiar quantum-mechanical phenomenon. Why is ice slippery? Most solids aren’t. It’s just a very interesting element.”

A teaching appointment at Michigan State University brought Buxbaum to Michigan in 1981, and ten years later he decided to start his own business in Metro Detroit.

“I bought a 1,000-square-foot building in Ferndale for $35,000,” Buxbaum says. “That was one of the pluses of being in Detroit. You could buy a building in Detroit for hardly more than it would cost to rent the building in other places.”

Buxbaum says REB got off to a slow start. “I didn’t realize how important customers were and how important sales were,” he says. “I got some customers pretty early on, but they weren’t big customers. Each of the companies just bought one or two things and scratched their heads, and never really went very far with it.”

Buxbaum eventually found his footing, attracting major clients including Honda, the British and American Navies, and Boeing (with whom he’s working on the hydrogen airplane). But Buxbaum says his business is still “cyclical.” 

“Some years, it’s gone very nicely,” he says. “Then there would be this horrible crash and it would seem like no one would buy anything from me or anyone else again. It just happens, like crop failures or locusts.”

Ironically, Buxbaum says, the slumps often come when people need new technology most. “It’s perverse,” he says. “Whenever there’s a problem, there’s less money. And when there’s less money, there’s less money to improve the product.”

REB has experienced a considerable drop-off in business from the nuclear power industry since the Fukushima meltdown, a disaster Buxbaum says could have been prevented with his own technology.

“Those were hydrogen explosions,” he says. “One thing that would have been nice would have been to have a rationally placed way to vent the hydrogen so it didn’t just build up and then blow the suckers sky-high. A product we make is a membrane that extracts the hydrogen continuously, so you don’t have to watch it, you don’t have to think about it.”

Buxbaum, who says hydrogen is “a wonderful energy source,” is currently designing a hydrogen generator to supplement the gas engine on a Saab 9-3 he’s buying. Like the nuclear industry, he says money stands in the way of progress towards a hydrogen-driven world.

“The easiest way to get gasoline is just to suck oil out of the ground,” Buxbaum says. “As far as quick routes to getting a product you want, that’s an obvious one. But you have to build a plant to extract hydrogen, and that takes money. It takes expense and it requires someone to take risks. And the only reason to take a risk is if you’re going to have protection at the other end.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.