The Speculist: Hydrogen on the Cheap


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Hydrogen on the Cheap

Yesterday, in response the the latest Better All the Time post I commented:

I do have one prediction about hydrogen. We will find much more efficient ways to get it than water electrolysis. For example, green plants get hydrogen from water as part of the process of photosynthesis. This is done very efficiently (and why would nature bother to get hydrogen from water if hydrogen were useless?). We are beginning to understand how this works and we might use that method to get hydrogen.

Or, we might use John Kazius' microwave method.

Or there might be some other way that that I won't know about until... today. According to Technology Review, scientist have known since the 70's that a material called titania serves as a catalyst for breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of light - specifically ultraviolet light.

The problem is that sunlight is only partly UV. The process would be much more efficient if titania split water with visible light too.

Nanotech to the rescue. Scientists with the startup company Nanoptek have just announced that putting titania on dome-like nanostructures stretches the bonds between the titania atoms so that it begins splitting water with visible light.

This process is said to be as cost effective as the current cheapest way of obtaining hydrogen - from natural gas. But since the natural gas process releases a significant amount of CO2 and this method releases only oxygen, this is the environmentally friendly approach.

One way this could really be useful is in storing solar power for night use. These dishes could produce hydrogen during daylight for powering fuel cells 24/7.


Hmmm...if this were done large scale, what would the imapct be of releasing all that extra oxygen into the atmosphere? Could releasing oxygen help to offset CO2 emissions? Or would it create problems of its own?

Maybe we could bottle it for hospitals. :-)

Seriously though, I'd say it would be a long time before that would become a problem.

Oxygen is corrosive, significantly more in the atmosphere might be a bad thing, but that's a problem for waaay down the road. We'll be in a position to address it by then.

Hey...just ran across your site. Yeah, that technology has been around for quite a while--but hasn't been efficient or cost-effective enough to be marketable. However, there are a number of groups working on different materials: polymer based materials, doped silicon, etc. There's a decent summary of some work done at the National Renewable Energy Lab (Jim Turner) on their website, if you're interested.

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