New Process Could Help Make Hydrogen Fuel Affordable

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
August 27, 2004

Scientists in Australia say they have have made a breakthrough in the efficiency of using sunlight to generate hydrogen from water. It may be a step toward an affordable source of clean energy.

A renewable source of energy to replace the world's declining fossil fuel reserves is perhaps the scientific community's holy grail. Hydrogen is all around us. It is seen by many as the cleanest and most efficient fuel for powering everything from vehicles to furnaces and air-conditioning—if only we can find an affordable way to harness it.

Now two researchers in Australia say they have made substantial progress.

Scientists have known for a long time how to split water into its two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. But the problem is that the process requires electricity—typically derived from fossil fuels—which makes the process counterproductive and expensive.

Janusz Nowotny and Charles Sorrell are researchers from the Centre for Materials Research in Energy Conversion at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. They have been looking for an economical way to use titanium dioxide to act as a catalyst to split water into oxygen and hydrogen—using solar energy.

The Stuff of Toothpaste

Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is widely used as a white pigment in paint, paper, cosmetics, sunscreens, and toothpastes. It is found in its purest form in rutile, a beach sand but is also extracted from certain ores. Rio Tinto, a mining company that produces titanium oxide, helps fund Nowotny's and Sorrell's research.

Nowotny and Sorrell announced their breakthrough today at the International Conference on Materials for Hydrogen Energy, hosted by the University of New South Wales in Sydney. They believe they have found a way to considerably improve the productivity of the solar hydrogen process (using sunlight to extract hydrogen from water) using a device made out of titanium dioxide.

"This is potentially huge, with a market the size of all the existing markets for coal, oil, and gas combined,'' Nowotny said in a news statement released ahead of the conference. "Based on our research results, we know we are on the right track."

Although Australia's sunny climate makes it an ideal place to generate solar energy, Sorrell said the technology could be used anywhere in the world.

"It's been the dream of many people for a long time to develop it, and it's exciting to know it's within such close reach," Sorrell said.

Honda-Fujishima Effect

Continued on Next Page >>


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