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The Key To Commercial Hydrogen

Commercial Hydrogen

Hydrogen gets a lot of attention as a feasible, green alternative to traditional fossil fuels, and even as the potential solution to commercial nuclear fusion, often referred to as the holy grail of clean energy. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel source for myriad different industrial processes and combustion engines, and when it burns it leaves nothing behind but water vapor. Sounds great, right? While it gets a lot of buzz, however, not all kinds of hydrogen are really a greener option. In fact, a lot of hydrogen is produced by using fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and coal, which means that its use really isn’t cutting down on emissions at all. This kind of hydrogen, called “gray hydrogen,” is already used in industries and industrial processes such as ammonia production, in refineries and as a feedstock for chemicals. This is what makes green hydrogen such a big deal - not just the hydrogen part, but also how it’s made, with zero greenhouse gas emissions on either the production or the consumption end of the supply chain. The only issue is that we haven’t yet found an economically viable way to produce green hydrogen without using tons of cash or tons of energy inputs. But we’re getting close.

For one thing, green hydrogen’s buzzworthy nature has gotten a lot of attention from investors, and recently even supermajor oil companies have been heading for greener pastures with new sustainable hydrogen projects. Just last month Royal Dutch Shell announced their involvement in a green hydrogen project involving an offshore wind farm in the Dutch North Sea. 

What’s more, experts are predicting that the biggest obstacle to bringing green hydrogen to market--its capital cost--is about to come down. “Everybody is predicting that the cost curve will come down, just as it has with solar and wind power,” Recharge News wrote last month. The article titled “Why green hydrogen is key to the global energy transition” continues: “Though, to get the price point right, you have to reach economies of scale. Then it’s just a matter of when the industry is primed to take the next step.” involvement from major players like Royal Dutch Shell is already getting us closer to that threshold.

And now, we may be even closer thanks to a breakthrough this month by a group of Japanese scientists from the Tokyo University of Science, who have managed to efficiently produce green hydrogen in a novel way. While the researchers' paper, “Hydrogen Production System by Light?Induced α?FeOOH Coupled with Photoreduction,” published in Chemistry: A European Journal, makes it sound complicated, it actually couldn’t be simpler. This green hydrogen recipe’s two humble main ingredients are rust and a light source.

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In layman’s terms, as translated from science-speak and paraphrased by Science Alert, “the set-up uses just a few basic ingredients - light from a mercury-xenon lamp, a solution of water and methanol, and a particular type of rust (or iron oxide) called α-FeOOH.” In the lab, this combination was a smashing success, with a hydrogen yield 25 times greater than existing methods that use titanium dioxide catalysts.

“One of the biggest challenges in hydrogen fuel production is teasing hydrogen atoms apart from other molecules, and keeping them that way without the entire thing blowing up,” the Science Alert article continues. “In the new method, by swapping titanium with rust, the hydrogen gas generated seemed to be blocked from recoupling with oxygen, making the separation of the elements easier, and reducing the risk of explosion at the same time.”

This cheap, stable catalyst combo could be the winning ticket to get green hydrogen to market. If so, this would have seriously positive implications for some of our dirtier industries, and any reduction in emissions is a very good thing on the eve of peak oil and catastrophic climate change.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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