Hydrogen has become something of a buzz word lately, but is it really a magic bullet for solving our energy problems? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’.
But first, what is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the ‘H’ in H2O.
What is H2O? Why it’s good old fashioned water, that’s what!
About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, so if we can find a cheap, easy way to extract hydrogen from water we’ll be half way there to our renewable magic bullet.
We can already use electrolysis to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, but the process requires both energy AND catalysts like platinum and iridium. If we use solar or wind power to extract the hydrogen then we’re still left with the problem of the platinum and iridium, neither of which is cheap.
Luckily, a lot of research is being directed at the extraction process. One team, headed by Dr Alexey Ganin of the University of Glasgow, is working on ‘pulsing electric current through a layered catalyst’ in order to extract the hydrogen. With this discovery, the pulse is the key.
Another team, from Stanford University, ‘developed a low-voltage, single-catalyst water splitter that continuously generates hydrogen and oxygen for more than 200 hours’. The beauty of this discovery is that the catalyst used is nickel-iron oxide. Not platinum or some other rare earth.
Clearly then, the extraction process is being improved in leaps and bounds, but what of the other side of the equation, the use of hydrogen as an energy source?
At the moment, hydrogen ‘…can be physically stored as either a gas or a liquid. Storage as a gas typically requires high-pressure tanks (5000–10,000 psi tank pressure). Storage of hydrogen as a liquid requires cryogenic temperatures because the boiling point of hydrogen at one atmosphere pressure is -252.8°C’ [Hydrogen Storage – Basics].
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d like to be anywhere near a hydrogen car if/when it collides with a truck and goes boooom!
To be a true magic bullet, hydrogen has to be both cheap and easy to produce and cheap and easy to store [and then use]. It also has to be safe. This is where new research is really powering ahead. Recently, not one, but two, separate research teams have come up with novel ways to store and transport hydrogen.
I’m very pleased to say that a team from Deakin University, right here in Australia, has come up with ‘a super-efficient way to mechanochemically trap and hold gases in powders’. Powders!!!
The neat little gif below [not mine] illustrates the process:
The steel balls pounding away in the cylinder separate the gases and then bind one of them to the boron nitride. That’s why it’s called a mechano + chemical process. The resultant powder can be stored safely at room temperature. To release the gas, you simply heat the powder.
Hot on the heels of that discovery comes another, this time from a Hong Kong based company EPRO Advance Technology (EAT). They’ve made a silicon based powder that doesn’t contain hydrogen – it makes hydrogen… when you add water.
‘The Si+ powder can be made using a (preferably renewable) energy source, as well as metallurgical-grade silicon – which itself can be made from sand, or from crushed-up recycled solar panels and electronics. EAT’s process results in a porous silicon powder that’s completely safe and easy to transport.’https://newatlas.com/energy/eat-si-hydrogen-generating-powder/
Two completely different approaches to the storage, transport, and use of hydrogen. Will either one become our magic bullet? I have no idea, but breakthroughs like these give me hope that we will be able to stop climate change before it stops us. 🙂