Hydrogen’s promise as an incredibly useful fuel has long been known. It’s light, clean, non-polluting, and not overly difficult to produce. But researchers have recently cracked a new more effective method for producing the gas that’s likely to unlock its potential completely.
As part of an international collaboration, scientists in the University of Aberdeen have worked out a method for completely converting ethanol into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Ethanol iself is produced by fermenting crops, and is thus carbon neutral–any carbon biproducts from using it are simply part of the normal environmental carbon cycle, unlike the greenhouse-gas effect of using fossil fuels.
The new process is a catalytic one, involving small nanoparticles of metal embedded onto larger nanoparticles of cerium oxide (itself used already in catalytic converters for cars.) The catalysis converts ethanol into H2 gas and CO2, and amazingly also converts the noxious carbon monoxide bi-product of the process into harmless CO2 at the same time. According to the team “at present the generation of hydrogen needed to power a mid size fuel cell can be achieved using 1 Kg of this catalyst.”
But why’s hydrogen so important? Hydrogen has a bad press–the Hindenburg Zeppelin disaster is a particularly strong image.
But an electricity-generating proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, powered by hydrogen and oxygen gas, has one of the simplest, safest waste product you can imagine: water. And that’s a powerful argument for using such techology to power our vehicles and even gadgets and homes in the future.
Despite the evident dangers of hauling compressed H2 gas around in a car, safe hydrogen gas tanks are already in existence. And there’s significant progress towards producing nanotechnology H2 tanks for the future that are safer yet.
Switching to hydrogen-powered vehicles would reduce the need for fossil fuel, immediately protecting the environment.
But 90% of the world’s current hydrogen production is as a bi-product of fossil-fuel, meaning that although hydrogen fuel itself is less polluting, its source is still an environmentally damaging one. And that’s where the new process’ strength lies: it’s both carbon neutral and reduces the need for fossil fuel.