Is Rust The Key To Cleaner, Solar-Generated Hydrogen?

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Rusty car (Image: Flickr user Another Seb)

Rusty car (Image: Flickr user Another Seb)

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Rust is usually something to be avoided in the automotive world, unless you're a hot-rodder looking for that sun-scorched appearance or a VW scene kid wanting the "rat look".

But while most associate rust with decay, scientists are finding another use for it--and one which could improve hydrogen production, benefitting fuel cell vehicles.

The hydrogen producing process results from mixing nanoparticles of haematite (crystalline iron oxide, or rust) with water and the energy from sunlight.

According to the BBC, researchers in the U.S, Switzerland and Israel have isolated a particular size of haematite particle that works particularly well, helping to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of solar energy.

They call these "champion nanoparticles". When putting these champions in water, bubbles of hydrogen gas form under sunlight, as part of a photoelectrochemical cell.

The major benefit of such a process is that iron oxide is cheap. While we suspect the process is a little more complicated than throwing your old jalopy in a swimming pool and collecting the gas that results, iron oxide is also abundant.

As a result, it's both a cheap and environmentally-friendly way of generating hydrogen--which can then be used to power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as well as hydrogen's myriad other uses.

It's one of several techniques being explored for cleaner hydrogen production. Currently, hydrogen is either hugely energy-intensive, hugely expensive or quite difficult to produce--usually all three. The easiest method is extracting it during the fossil fuel production process, which isn't particularly green either.

With several automakers exploring hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a green alternative to internal combustion, improving the production of an increasingly important gas will become ever more important.

Maybe rust isn't such a bad thing after all...

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