The discovery of a highly efficient catalyst can pave the way to a hydrogen economy.
Hydrogen gas is the perfect fuel (if you don’t mind the explosive combustability it is capable of). You can generate electric power from it or even ignite it for its heat value. And the good thing is that the outcome is not pollution in the form of carbon dioxide but water. It’s so simple.
Rather like petrol, hydrogen could also be employed to store energy on a regular basis. Can a single element have so many uses? Normally hydrogen is made by electrolysis of water. And while the water is available in the form of the world’s oceans, the costly metals used in the process are where the problem arises with regards to regards feasibility.
"In the hydrogen evolution reaction, the whole game is coming up with inexpensive alternatives to platinum and the other noble metals," says Song Jin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The noble metals such as platinum, palladium, iridium and gold are not that easy to obtain and their prices in the market are astronomical. They resist oxidation and thus their rare properties make them a much sought after commodity.
But now inexpensive metals that are alternatives to these precious metals have been discovered and they are being used in the making of hydrogen.
A catalyst containing phosphorus, sulphur and cobalt (which is much less costly than platinum) is employed to carry out the hydrogen evolution process. The research began with fool’s gold (also known as iron pyrites) in the lab. Several other cheap metals were used on a daily basis.
The experts kept tinkering around and finally they hit the nail on the head. The use of sunlight to split water was looked into and it proved to be the missing link. By using solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of the cobalt catalyst, the process showed a high degree of efficiency.
A patent for the new chemical method was filed with WARF. And while this new catalyst does not work as well as platinum, it is a thousand times cheaper and so you have to take that into consideration. With the climate change demon out of the bottle, huge steps will need to be taken to ensure that the future is not a dystopian one.
For that to be an actuality, solar energy is our best bet and hydrogen gas must take the place of fossil fuels. We will have to start thinking today for what will have to be an alternative future to the one we are headed for right now like a runaway train.
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This study was published in Nature Materials.