From water, a promise of power

Recent discoveries are finding new and better ways to derive power from hydrogen oxide, part of a worldwide push to harness the latent power in water and put an end to carbon-based fuels. By John Dyer.

Turning water into fuel for cars, home heating and other needs has long been the holy grail of green-minded scientists and entrepreneurs.

For more than a century, scientists have known how to use electricity to separate oxygen from hydrogen, a combustible element that could power machines. But the cost of electricity and carbon emissions from generating electricity has always been prohibitive in terms of costs and environmental damage.

Now recent discoveries suggest new and better ways to derive power from hydrogen oxide, or H20.

Advancements in hydrogen generation

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently found a new way of splitting water from hydrogen that they say is potentially economically viable and much more sustainable than methods commonly used today.

As explained in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the scientists mixed the metals used in creating the electric current that splits H20 with perchloric acid, expanding the yield of hydrogen.

“It was surprising to find that the acid we chose as a catalyst for this reaction turned out to improve the structure of the material used for the electrodes,” said study a co-author Hong Yang, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, in a press release. “This realization was fortuitous and quite valuable for us. This type of research will be quite impactful regarding hydrogen generation for sustainable energy in the future.”

From fuel cells to filtering seawater

Yang’s work is part of a worldwide push to harness the latent power in water in the quest to put an end to carbon-based fuels.

A hydrogen fuel cell that might power an electric motor would be two to three times more efficient than a traditional internal combustion engine, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Such an engine would spew oxygen rather than carbon dioxide, meaning living near a highway might provide access to fresher air rather than pollution.

In the United States, scientists are working on perfecting the conductors in electrolysis, the chemical reaction that produces hydrogen and creating membranes to filter sea water for use in the process – work that could result in offshore water rigs pumping hydrogen into balloons that might float to land-based refineries and pipelines. Chinese and European researchers are figuring out how to draw hydrogen out of water using sunlight and organic materials rather than metals.

Industry on board

Industry is already harnessing such knowledge. Shell and ITM Power are building the world’s largest hydrogen electrolysis plant in Germany. It’s slated to produce 10 megawatts at peak capacity. Hyundai and Toyota are collaborating with Australian scientists to developing hydrogen storage, a key challenge if they are to create a distribution network for cars in the future.

“This is a watershed moment for energy, and we look forward to applying CSIRO innovation to enable this exciting renewably-sourced fuel and energy storage medium a smoother path to market,” said Larry Marshall, chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in a press release.

More than just hydrogen

Water offers more than hydrogen, too.

University of Nottingham microbiologist Abdelrahman Zaky recently discovered a way of using seawater to produce bioethanol, a fuel that uses fermentation to make a substance that serves as a substitute for oil and petrochemicals. Using salty water could open up enormous opportunities for a sustainable fuel that is already replacing some oil consumption worldwide, Zaky argued.

“Current fermentation technologies mainly use edible crops and freshwater for the production of bioethanol,” said Zaky in a press release. “With an ever-growing population and demand for biofuels and other bio-based produces, there are concerns over the use of the limited freshwater and food crops resources for non-nutritional activities. Also, freshwater has a high price tag in countries where it is available, pushing up the price of production.”

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