Hydrogen Fuel Becomes More A Reality

French scientists have discovered a swift and easy way to make hydrogen, the raw material of a whole universe and a clean source of energy for fuel cell transport.

The catch is that it may be a few decades before the process can be turned into industrial-scale production. The bonus is that the discovery may be the key to a deeper understanding of planetary processes and the origin of life.

Hydrogen would be a valuable fuel for a post-carbon world. It is lightweight, fiercely reactive, and burns with oxygen to make water, so it would solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem, and there would be no other air pollution either.

GE Fuel Cell Bus

GE fuel cell bus (image via GE)

Hydrogen is the power source for 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and it is a food and energy resource for microbial communities that dwell miles below the Earth’s surface. But in energy terms, it is expensive to make in a laboratory or a factory.

Three researchers from the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 in France told the American Geophysical Unionat its recent meeting in San Francisco that they think they have solved the puzzle.

They put aluminium oxide, water and olivine, one of the planet’s most common minerals, in a high-pressure vessel known as a diamond anvil cell.

They turned up the heat – to somewhere between 200°C and 300°C – and the pressure to match those far below the deepest ocean floor, and waited. They had expected to wait months. The mixture delivered hydrogen within 24 hours.

Accelerated by aluminium

What happens deep in the Earth’s crust is already known. Water touches olivine under the fierce pressures deep beneath the sea floor and the rock reacts with oxygen in the water to transform itself into another mineral called serpentine. The waste product is hydrogen.

Microbial communities deep in the crust – their existence has been confirmed only in the last two decades – have been devouring the hydrogen in order to multiply and colonise the deep Earth, and these creatures may even have been among the first life forms on Earth.

But in the natural world, hydrogen generation happens slowly. Muriel Andreani and her colleagues have already described their new, high-speed process in the journal American Mineralogist.

The secret seems to have been that they employed aluminium as a catalyst to accelerate the process perhaps 50-fold. Aluminium is about the fifth most common mineral in the Earth’s crust. The problem for the moment is that a diamond anvil cell is a very small vessel.

The technique can – and does – provide important information about geochemistry at levels far deeper than any mineshaft.  But it could hardly make enough hydrogen to drive even a toy car.

“Aluminium’s ability to catalyse hydrogen production at a much lower temperature could make an enormous difference. The cost and risk of the process would drop a lot”, says Jesse Ausubel, one of the founders of theDeep Carbon Observatory programme, which has been exploring processes in the Earth’s crust.

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

climate-newsnetworkEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Climate News Network. Author credit goes to Tim Radford.

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  • David Lynn Courtney

    First off all hydrogen is very easy to make and can be made for next to nothing. Cleaning hydrogen is the problem. In its raw form it is a nasty very corrosive gas. The second problem is the storage process. Its not only a safe and secure vessel for the masses that is required, but the price of equipment has to come down to a level where people can afford it. Pumps required to compress and store Hydrogen are beyond most companies budgets let alone the public’s. These would have to be produced and distributed in mass. Currently you can count the number of manufacturer’s on your hands. The shear size of this undertaking is it’s greatest hurdle. The Article is interesting though. If this process is scale-able it could have a place in the future.

    • jeffhre

      Very true. Except that in comparison to gasoline, electricity, natural gas, propane or ethanol, making hydrogen is anything but cheap. It is not just that pumps are expensive, even if the pumps were free – it takes a tremendous amount of energy to store hydrogen under pressure in a vehicle tank.

      • David Lynn Courtney

        I was referring to a new method of using the sun to heat and separate the hydrogen. Pump energy requirements would be produced by renewable energy source (wind, Solar and water). It really cost next to nothing (O&M) once it is operational. Your right though the problem still is storage and compressing the gas into a usable state.

        • jeffhre

          Next to nothing (O&M) and using wind, solar, water, goes a lot farther in producing electricity than hydrogen. According to Ulf Bossel it goes about three times farther. http://phys.org/news85074285.html

          • David Lynn Courtney

            Let me explain What I am up too. I have been working on a “design for a single household model able to produce enough fuel over the day to run the household and a vehicle”. That is my challenge. We have been able to produce a considerable amount of gas using a solar concentrator. It is then stored in a baffle similar to methane Bio-digestor. The problem is storing the hydrogen we produce. To make it financially viable for a single family product the price of the pumps price have to come down. The costs associated at least for our design is next to nothing (pennies a month). In reference to the renewable sources I was referring that (for now anyway) there is no cost for fuel source for wind (it blows for free), Water (flows for free), Sun (shines for free).