How to make hydrogen on the cheap

There are many challenges to achieving the dreamed-about hydrogen economy, but one of them – the ability to make hydrogen from water cheaply and at scale – could be a little closer to being overcome. If it indeed is, renewable energy could become a whole lot more economical.

Here’s the news: Researchers in Canada say they’ve come up with a line of catalysts based on inexpensive, Earth-abundant materials, including iron oxide, for producing hydrogen from water by electrolysis.

Iron oxide: Yep, that’s rust.

This reported breakthrough comes from Curtis Berlinguette and Simon Trudel, chemists at the University of Calgary. They published their work in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

What makes their work so exciting is that high-density hydrogen could be the perfect storage medium needed to allow for greater integration of intermittent renewable energy sources – like solar and wind – onto the grid.

Imagine: Wind energy produced at night – or solar power produced on weekends – when demand is low could be used to turn water into hydrogen, which could then be used in a wide variety of ways, in stationary fuel cells that power buildings or feed the grid, or in vehicles (the elusive clean transportation fuel).

“This breakthrough offers a relatively cheaper method of storing and reusing electricity produced by wind turbines and solar panels,” Berlinguette said in a statement. “Our work represents a critical step for realizing a large-scale, clean energy economy.”

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea at all; we’re already seeing renewable energy tied into hydrogen production through electrolysis, at least conceptually. The problem has been how to drive this process in a way that isn’t too expensive and doesn’t use too much energy.

The Calgaray researchers have founded a company, FireWater Fuel, to bring their science into the market. They make some head claims:

“The first generation of the FFC technology demonstrated that a cheap nanoscaled form of catalyst material can help drive the production of hydrogen fuels with little energy input. The performance of the second-generation FFC technology, FFCat, already outperforms the industry benchmark despite costing only a fraction of the price and consisting of environmentally benign materials.”

This is definitely one worth watching.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling