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Cheap Green Energy Possible with Hydrogen Breakthrough

Sep 16, 2014 11:58 AM EDT

It's no secret that the world's dependence on fossil fuels and other types of finite energy are increasingly devastating our planet and speeding up climate change. But new research may offer a glimmer of hope, as a new hydrogen breakthrough could usher in a generation of cheap, green energy.

Scientists from the University of Glasgow have come up with a new form of hydrogen production that is 30 times faster than the current state-of-the-art method. What's more, the breakthrough also offers a solution to some common problems associated with generating electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind or wave energy.

"Around 95 percent of the world's hydrogen supply is currently obtained from fossil fuels, a finite resource which we know harms the environment and speeds climate change," lead researcher Lee Cronin from the university's School of Chemistry, said in a statement.

"The potential for reliable hydrogen production from renewable sources is huge."

Hydrogen is produced relatively easily using a process called electrolysis, which involves using electricity to break the bonds between water's hydrogen and oxygen components and releasing them as gas. Unlike fossil fuels, this hydrogen gas can then be burned without any subsequent harmful effects on the environment.

While the process itself is eco-friendly, the means of powering electrolysis is not. Currently, industrial production of hydrogen relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels.

But there is also a more advanced method of generating hydrogen using renewable power called proton exchange membrane electrolysers (PEMEs). However, PEMEs can be unreliable since they require precious metal catalysts to be held in high-pressure containers and subjected to high densities of electric current, which can be difficult to achieve from fluctuating renewable sources.

The new method can produce vast amounts of hydrogen at atmospheric pressure using lower power loads, typical of those generated by renewable power sources.

"The process uses a liquid that allows the hydrogen to be locked up in a liquid-based inorganic fuel. By using a liquid sponge known as a redox mediator that can soak up electrons and acid we've been able to create a system where hydrogen can be produced in a separate chamber without any additional energy input after the electrolysis of water takes place," Cronin explained.

This allows "hydrogen to be released from the water 30 times faster than the leading PEME process on a per-milligram-of-catalyst basis," he added.

The research was published in the journal Science.

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