Can A Black Stain Lead The Hydrogen Economy?

Producing hydrogen and oxygen from water is often a dirty process. Researchers at Monash University may have found a solution in birnessite, a mineral often found as a black stain on rocks.



Just in case the whole electric-car revolution doesn’t pan out, vehicle manufactures have been hedging their bets with hydrogen-powered vehicles; just last week, Toyota opened the first hydrogen refueling station connected directly to a hydrogen pipeline. But human production of hydrogen from water is often a dirty process–most hydrogen today is produced from natural gas. Plants, however, split water all the time. It’s a process we’ve had a hard time mimicking on the cheap.

Researchers at Monash University have developed a simple process that can efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen. As an electrical voltage is applied to the cell, the catalyst converts to birnessite, which does the separating. It’s an easier process than anything scientists had tried before. Haven’t heard of birnessite? It’s a mineral more commonly known as “that black stain you see sometimes on rocks, if you pay a lot of attention to rocks.” Scientists have spent many hours and countless dollars trying to solve man-made photosynthesis, and the solution turns out to be a stain. Nature can be cruel sometimes.

While this is all quite academic, it could have enormous dividends. Once we find a cheap and clean way to mimic the photosynthesis process, hydrogen could become the a truly clean fuel. If this discovery can be scaled, it could be huge.

And there are other new cheap, efficient solutions for turning water into hydrogen. Just last week, a team of researchers announced that they figured out how to join a molybdenum sulfide (a common lubricant) catalyst with a light-absorbing electrode to make hydrogen.

But all of these discoveries are still in the research stages–which means we shouldn’t give up on that electric vehicle revolution any time soon. The fabled hydrogen economy is a long way off. But maybe a little closer than it was a few weeks ago.

[Image: Wikipedia]


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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.