Potential of Cheap Hydrogen Fuel Reemerges

Previously studied and developed sources of energy like solar panels have received much attention and are already improving environmental conditions in areas where they are now in use. For instance, the UK is installing free solar panels in 800,000 homes. Scientists are also constantly looking into alternative sources when the circumstances call for it, like using Hurricane Irma waste to generate power, addressing not only the need for energy but also the need for recycling.

And then sometimes, intriguing and novel lab research makes an appearance, as seen in the UC Berkeley team that trained cyborg bacteria to photosynthesize and produce solar fuels. An intriguing — though apparently not novel — study that reemerged recently is the search for hydrogen fuel. In the 1970s, scientists have already started the work, but found that the production of hydrogen fuel cost too much, so only minimal research has occurred.

This year, about four decades later, researchers have finally found a way to make hydrogen fuel cheap and thus viable for widespread use — through the help of ammonia.

Ammonia, a hydrogen-rich molecule, has recently surfaced as a source of the molecular hydrogen needed to generate electricity. Now, researchers have figured out how to extract that fuel and generate power without creating usual pollutants that come from using ammonia.

Publishing their results in the Journal of Catalysis, the researchers found that a new crystal composed of copper, silicon, and other metals can be used to facilitate faster ammonia combustion without causing any pollution. Using the newfound chemical, ammonia extracts hydrogen fuel with only one byproduct — di-nitrogen, one of the Earth’s safe atmospheric gases.

Ammonia used to be inaccessible in the production of hydrogen fuel because it combusted only at very high temperatures (which made the process tedious and expensive) and generated much toxic waste. But thanks to the study, its usage is now cheap and clean, offering huge potential for the widespread production of hydrogen fuel.

One of the biggest potential uses for hydrogen power is emission-free vehicles. That’s the goal of much of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s hydrogen power research, perhaps because cutting greenhouse gas emissions from our cars, buses, and trucks would make a huge dent in our overall emissions.

It is important to note that the study happened in a laboratory, and more research is necessary to see if the potential will really blow up once taken to a bigger setting. But perhaps more important: sooner or later hydrogen fuel may just prove to be another strong and valuable contender in the search for more sources of clean energy.

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