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Scientists Discover Recipe for Quick Hydrogen Production

Dec 09, 2013 02:41 PM EST
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French scientists have uncovered a new way to produce large amounts of hydrogen that could one day give way to cheaper production of the clean fuel source.

Presenting the study at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting held Dec. 9-13, the researchers will explain how they were able accelerate a natural process that occurs when water and the mineral olivine mix under extreme pressures and temperatures. 

Muriel Andreani, Isabelle Daniel and Marion Pollet-Villard of the University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 combined both of these with aluminum in a microscopic high-pressure cooker called a diamond anvil. Setting the temperature at 200-300 degrees Celsius and increasing the pressure to roughly twice that found at the deepest ocean, the scientists were able to trigger a reaction divorcing the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules and transforming the olivine into a mineral known as serpentine.

Nature produces hydrogen through
Nature produces hydrogen through "serpentinization." When water meets the ubiquitous mineral olivine under pressure, the rock absorbs mostly oxygen (O) atoms from H2O, transforming olivine into another mineral, serpentine -- characterized by a scaly, green-brown surface appearance like snakeskin. The complex network of fracturing and created by serpentinization also creates habitat for subsurface microbial communities. Credit: Matt Schrenk, Michigan State University

The scientists were amazed to discover that the process took only a day, rather than the expected months. The trick, they explain, is the aluminum, which is responsible for speeding the process up.

"Aluminum's ability to catalyze hydrogen production at a much lower temperature could make an enormous difference," said Jesse Ausubel of The Rockefeller University and a founder of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), of which the researchers were a part. "The cost and risk of the process would drop a lot."

The DCO represents a global, 10-year international science collaboration dedicated to better understanding the planet's inner workings, including deep life, energy, chemistry and fluid movements.

"Scaling this up to meet global energy needs in a carbon-free way would probably require 50 years," Ausubel said. "But a growing market for hydrogen in fuel cells could help pull the process into the market."

According to Ausubel, there are still other obstacles facing the industry

"We still need to solve problems for a hydrogen economy, such as storing the hydrogen efficiently as a gas in compact containers, or optimizing methods to turn it into a metal, as pioneered by Russell Hemley of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, another co-founder of the DCO."

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