Hydrogen has huge potential as a clean energy source. For instance, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which are zero-emission and run on compressed hydrogen fed into a group of fuel cells that produces electricity to power the vehicle. A fuel cell can be used in combination with an electric motor to drive a vehicle – quietly, powerfully and cleanly. It's a great solution to fossil fuel-guzzling cars, but so far we haven't been able to make fuel cells cheaply or efficiently enough.
But a new method may have cracked the case. A team from the University of Central Florida has developed a nanomaterial that can release hydrogen from seawater much more cheaply and efficiently than existing methods, potentially giving us another way of unlocking this sustainable energy source.
"We've opened a new window to splitting real water, not just purified water in a lab," senior researcher Yang Yang, who has been working on this type of technology for a decade, told Science Alert. "This really works well in seawater."
Typically, the process of producing hydrogen from water or another source is that it often costs more energy and creates more carbon output than it saves. Scientists have looked at getting hydrogen from seawater before, and while it can be done, it uses a lot of electricity. Additionally, the high levels of salt can make the process particularly tricky.
What's different about this method is that Yang and his team developed a new nanomaterial that acts as a photocatalyst, spurring the chemical reaction that occurs when light hits a surface. In this case, that means producing hydrogen from water. The nanomaterial captures a broader spectrum of light than other materials, so it can use more of the sun's energy, according to Science Alert, and it also is specially designed to stand up to the harsh conditions found in seawater.
"The hybrid material is based on titanium dioxide, the most common photocatalyst, but it's etched with microscopic nanocavities coated with a compound called molybdenum disulfide," Science Alert reports. "That's the magic formula that makes the release of hydrogen much more efficient, at a reasonable cost. The researchers say it's at least twice as efficient as current photocatalysts.""
The technology is not ready to be released yet, but the early tests run by the researchers show promising results. Which means that soon enough, the ocean and sunlight may be all we need for a sustainable source of renewably energy.