A breakthrough has been made in the development of clean hydrogen power, scientists claim.
At the moment, while hydrogen fuel is appealing, the production of hydrogen is incredible difficult – requiring huge amounts of energy.
But the researchers say they have made a new material that can generate hydrogen from water, meaning it is less reliant on fossil fuels.
Researchers at the University of Bath and Yale University created the invention.
It uses a newly designed molecular catalyst to split water in an electrolyser and create clean and storable hydrogen fuel.
Lead research Dr Ulrich Hintermair told MailOnline that the main problem with the production of hydrogen through a process known as water electrolysis was the waste oxygen it produces.
The process splits water into hydrogen and oxygen but, while the first part can be done quite efficiently, the latter was more difficult and lots of energy is lost.
With this in mind the team designed a catalyst – a substance that alters the speed of the chemical reaction – to improve the efficiency.
‘Oxygen is the most difficult bit,’ Dr Hintermair explained.
Their catalyst, placed on an electrode used in the production of hydrogen, is much more efficient – and although Dr Hintermair didn’t have an exact figure, he said the energy loss using it is ‘almost non-existent’.
The major benefit from this breakthrough is that hydrogen could now be used more easily as a way to store energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.
‘We can make electricity out of sunlight and wind, low carbon renewable sources, but we can’t store it very well,’ Dr Hintermair continued.
‘We can put it in a battery but you can’t, for example, fly an airplane on a battery yet.
‘So we need to convert it into a chemical fuel, and for that water electrolysis is a key technology because we can take any renewable technology, connect it to an electrolyster and store it in hydrogen, which is a fantastic fuel.’
This, for example, would make hydrogen fuel cells for cars much more economical.
The team are in discussions with a number of energy companies about utilising this technology on a large scale and hope the breakthrough marks the start of contributing to providing the world with more sustainable fuels.
‘In theory it could be used on all systems, but it depends on cost and scale,’ said Dr Hintermair.
As regulations tighten on the use of fossil fuels and their emissions, there is a growing focus on the need for cost effective and efficient ways of creating energy carriers from renewable sources.
Solar power is thought to be able to provide up to four per cent of the UK’s electricity by the end of the decade.
However, while the price of photovoltaic technology has dramatically decreased in recent years as demand has risen, solar energy is problematic as it is intermittent, meaning electricity is only created when it is light.
One use of the newly developed catalyst could be to store the energy produced by solar power by using the electricity to produce hydrogen which can then be used on demand, regardless of the time of day.
Dr Hintermair is a Whorrod research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath.
‘Hydrogen is a fantastically versatile and environmentally friendly fuel, however, hydrogen-powered applications are only as “green” as the hydrogen on which they run,’ he said.
‘Currently, over 90 per cent is derived from fossil fuels. If we want to bring about a clean hydrogen economy we must first generate clean hydrogen.
‘This new molecular catalyst will hopefully play a large role in helping create hydrogen from renewable energy sources such as solar power.
‘We are also interested in applying this technology to other forms of renewable energy such as tidal, wind and wave power.’
Professor Matthew Davidson, head of the department of chemistry, added: ‘Splitting water into its constituent parts is deceptively simple chemistry, but doing it in a sustainable way is one of the holy grails of chemistry because it is the key step in the goal of artificial photosynthesis.
‘[Dr Hintermair’s] results are extremely exciting because of their potential for practical application.’
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