The transition from fossil fuels will mean relying on alternative sources to power our machinery, technology, homes and vehicles. In many ways, hydrogen-based energy seems like our best bet: it can be produced from water, a naturally abundant resource, and its uses range from agriculture to transportation. But right now, the production of clean hydrogen relies on a process called electrolysis which splits water into its atomic components of hydrogen and oxygen.
Electrolysis is limited by access to fresh water. According to a new study published Tuesday in Nature communications, more than a third of the planet’s earth is arid or semi-arid and is home to around 20% of the world’s population. Fresh water is not readily available in these parts and is becoming increasingly scarce. Water stress increased in most of the world between 2008 and 2018, according to a UN water report from 2021.
But the authors of that new paper, mostly from the University of Melbourne, think they have just come up with a potential solution to perform electrolysis in water-stressed areas – a new method they tested that captures water and produces hydrogen. out of nowhere, literally. We may soon have a viable way to produce hydrogen sustainably without consuming valuable freshwater reserves, which could allow communities to decarbonise their energy production without compromising the water needs of their populations.
This could be the start of a hydrogen fuel revolution
The new method is based on a porous glass foam soaked in an electrolyte that absorbs moisture and absorbs water from the air. Electricity from a renewable energy source such as solar panels or a wind turbine can be used to divide the absorbed water into oxygen, which is released, and hydrogen, which is collected in a chamber.
After testing their system’s stability and energy inputs, the researchers stacked five of their collectors on top of each other to form a tower and connected the cell to a solar panel. They measured the tower’s hydrogen production over the course of two days it was stationed on the University of Melbourne campus and found that it reliably produced hydrogen, 1,490 milliliters on the first day and 1,188 milliliters on the second day, when weather conditions they were worse.
The results are quite encouraging, although this method is by no means ready for practical use on a large scale. An electric vehicle, for example, holds about five kilograms of liquid hydrogen in its tank, orders of magnitude more than the researchers have been able to produce. A little more work is needed to show how this system can be expanded.
The tempting energy fix that could make us carbon neutral
Unlike previous work, the system’s efficiency exceeded the US Department of Energy’s target for solar to hydrogen conversion by 20 percent. The authors also connected their system to a wind turbine, demonstrating its effectiveness in electrolyzing water from air into hydrogen regardless of the energy source. In the future, they see the potential for entire hydrogen “farms” consisting of renewable energy towers and producers. These farms “have the potential to generate abundant hydrogen in arid and semi-arid areas with negligible disruption of regional air humidity and minimal impact on the environment,” they wrote in the study.
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