The promise of hydrogen as a primary fuel source has been sought after for decades. A clean burning fuel whose only byproduct is water, hydrogen is tailor made for humankind’s energy needs. The downside; however, is that hydrogen synthesis in its current form is expensive and burns fossil fuels during manufacture, thus mitigating its status as a green energy source. Recently, Professor Hongjie Dai and graduate student Ming Gong at Stanford University have led a team of scientists to make a preliminary breakthrough that significantly reduces the cost and waste of hydrogen manufacture.
Electrolysis, the method used to synthesize hydrogen, is a relatively simple process; a current is passed between two electrodes immersed in water which splits the water molecules apart into their respective oxygen and two hydrogen atoms (H20). Until recently, large scale production was not feasible given the requirement that the electrodes used had to be made of precious metals.
The Stanford team discovered that by taking carbon nanotubes and attaching an inexpensive catalyst of nickel (coated with nickel oxide instead of platinum or iridium) yielded surprising results. Using a AAA battery and nickel coated electrodes, the scientists were able to generate hydrogen at similar levels of current when compared to the levels produced using only precious metals. Once this innovative technology is scaled for mass production, one of the major hurdles in hydrogen fuel production, cost, will finally be overcome, saving the producers of hydrogen billions of dollars while amply supplying the energy needs of the world.
With electrical, solar and hydrogen power all in various stages of development and production, it remains to be seen which renewable energy source will be the one that replaces fossil fuels entirely (if not all of them concurrently). For now, any step in the right direction is cause for celebration.