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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Comments (5)
  1. First is what do you do with it once it's made?

    Making H2 is just the first of many expensive and not that eff problems with H2 and foolcells.

    Instead of using the solar for this ineff mess just put it in an EV battery at 98% eff vs the bad eff of making this H2 and even worse eff using it.

    Nor does anyone mention the energy loss and danger of the O2 that has to be made at the same time dragging energy from the possible fuel.

    Or all the pumps, etc needed to make a foolcell to work in a car.

    Fact is a well done ICE is as eff as a foolcell once all costs/losses are accounted for.

  2. Your point on O2 also feeds back to lack of efficiency. Photocatalytic water splitting is not like an electrochemical cell in which the O2 and H2 are formed in separate chambers, the O2 and H2 are still mixed and need to be separated and thus more energy is spent for that process, thus reducing overall production efficiency. They would be better off just trying to produce chemicals such as ethanol, by pumping in methane and reacting that with the OH intermediates.

  3. The only fool is the one the ignores the many advances on fuel cell technology in a such a short time and therefore the potential (plus major industrial spin offs). Consider hydrogen fuel cell is powered from the most abundant element, USA made, water vapor vehicle emissions, and best of all, allows us to drive a large vehicle rather than one that is the size a shoe box.

  4. And the most convenient way to carry lots of hydrogen around is in carbon chains, which is why I'm a bigger fan of either onboard reformulation or solid-oxide fuel cells that can take methanol/gasoline/diesel directly.

  5. the best thing to do with a hydrogen powered car is not buy it :)

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