Hydrogen is often lauded as a fuel of the future--a way to offer the combined benefits of electric vehicles and combustion cars in one, simple package.

The reality is a little more complicated, as you might imagine. But one of hydrogen's long-standing issues, the cleanliness of its production, could change with a new technique.

As Science Daily reports, an existing problem with hydrogen production is a rather unhealthy byproduct--carbon monoxide.

The gas is toxic to humans and animals, and it's therefore advantageous to keep its creation to a minimum.

Engineers at Duke University have found a way to get around this by using a catalyst during the production of hydrogen, reducing carbon monoxide production to nearly zero.

In this case, the catalyst is a nanoparticle combination of gold and iron oxide. Such a combination is already used to "clean" the carbon monixide from hydrogen gas production, but Duke researchers found that catalysts with higher concentrations of iron oxide were more effective.

Their new method makes for a much more efficient process, reducing the amount of carbon monoxide in the hydrogen gas to just 20 parts per million.

That's good news not just for human health, but the health of a fuel cell too. The team's research is aimed at improving hydrogen production for use in fuel cell vehicles, but higher concentrations of carbon monxide can damage the membranes protecting the cells in a fuel cell--reducing its efficiency and life.

Combined with improved methods of extracting hydrogen--such as a new technique that treats biomass-derived methanol with steam to create a hydrogen-rich mixture--it makes the whole process not only greener, but healthier for both people and fuel cells alike.

Carmakers are still a good few years from developing affordable production fuel cell vehicles in any great quantity, but at the moment hydrogen is a difficult and energy-intensive gas to produce.

Research like this is important to ensure hydrogen is genuinely as green as the silver bullet reputation that precedes it.


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