Is cheap clean energy hydrogen in our future?
The race is heating up over who will be the first to develop a cheap and economical way to produce hydrogen gas, with researchers from the United Kingdom now putting their money on -wait for it- fescue grass.
“Hydrogen is seen as an important future energy carrier as the world moves from fossil fuels to renewable feedstocks, and our research has shown that even garden grass could be a good way of getting hold of it,” says Michael Bowker of the Cardiff Catalysis Institute in Cardiff, Wales.
Through a process called photocatalysis, researchers found that the raw, unprocessed cellulose in garden-variety plants like fescue grass can be used to create hydrogen when put in the presence of both sunlight and a catalyst metal such as palladium, gold or nickel. Choosing to focus on the cheapest and widely available of the three – nickel -the team whose research is published in the journal Royal Society Journal Proceedings A were encouraged with their results.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that this kind of raw biomass has been used to produce hydrogen in this way. This is significant as it avoids the need to separate and purify cellulose from a sample, which can be both arduous and costly.”
Many have predicted the rise of the “hydrogen economy” as industries continue to move away from fossil fuels in search of affordable alternatives. Hydrogen has proven to be an excellent source of energy and produces zero emissions, to boot. The trouble is that the well-known process used to produce hydrogen, electrolysis, uses a catalyst to breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen, which often comes in the form of an expensive precious metal like iridium, costing tens of thousands of dollars per kilo. Further, the process requires a significant amount of energy to actually produce the hydrogen, thereby negating potential gains in energy along the way.
But a number of options have recently surfaced in attempt to skirt the problem. A 2013 study from Wakayama University in Japan found that powder from high-grade charcoal might prove helpful, as scientists found that adding carbon and charcoal powders to water and then beaming a laser into the mixture in nanosecond pulses generated hydrogen at room temperature -without the need for further catalysts or precious metal electrodes.
More recently, researchers from the University of Southern California Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute in Los Angeles showed that formic acid produced by decaying vegetation, can yield hydrogen when in the presence of the proper catalyst. Yet another option may be solar-powered electrodes made of extremely thin slices of an inexpensive compound that absorbs sunlight called bismuth vanadate.
For a completely different approach, researchers from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, believe that rather than having to produce hydrogen from other materials, we might just be able to tap into reserves of the gas lying deep beneath the Earth’s surface. In a new paper from the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers argue that large quantities of hydrogen gas may be forming due to the spreading apart of the Earth’s tectonic plates beneath the continents and under the sea. The key may be serpentinized rocks which have been chemically altered by water as they are brought up to the surface by the movement of tectonic plates, and importantly, hydrogen gas is a by-product of the serpentinization process, marking the potential for discovery of underground hydrogen gas reservoirs.
The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA) says that hydrogen fuel cell research and production is becoming a promising technology-based export for Canadian businesses, currently employing 2,000 Canadians in the clean-tech industry.
Ballard Power Systems Inc., a Burnaby, BC, manufacturer of fuel cell systems, recently signed a $168-million agreement to help build fuel cells in a factory in southern China with the Guangdong Nation Synergy Hydrogen Power Technology Co. as partner. “This deal is transformational in terms of positioning fuel cells as a compelling solution for clean energy buses and commercial vehicles in China’s high-population cities where air quality is a top priority,” says Synergy Chairman Frank Ma in a statement.
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