Shortcut Discovered For Creating Hydrogen

Mix a pinch of aluminum with common olivine rock, pressure cook it for 24 hours and you end up with a less energy-intense way to generate hydrogen.

Published: 11-Dec-2013

At the moment, the cheapest (relatively speaking) way to create hydrogen is to steam reform methane (natural gas). The drawback is it produces carbon dioxide and depends on the availability of the fossil fuel. More expensive and less efficient is electrolysis of water what uses an electric current to split the two hydrogen atoms - the H2 in H2O - from their oxygen atom bond.

A third way, which is still largely experimental, is to use bacteria that produce hydrogen as a metabolic waste. Researchers have discovered a bacteria on the floor of the Bay of Naples in Italy that does precisely this, but commercialization is still somewhere over the horizon.

Now there's a fourth way, one that might just - in fifty years time - pave the way to that fabled hydrogen economy, and it was discovered somewhat by accident when scientists in Lyon, France decided to mix a bit of aluminum into their experiment designed to replicate a deep earth process at produces hydrogen on which bacteria live at these great depths and pressures.

The researchers, Muriel Andreani, Isabelle Daniel, and Marion Pollet-Villard of University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 introduced aluminum into a device called a diamond anvil, a high-pressure test vessel designed to emulate the temperatures and pressures in the earth's mantle. They were testing a sample of olivine, a common mineral found pretty much everywhere, subjecting it to 2 kilobars (29,000 psi) and up to300 C (572 F). They expected to see hydrogen produced over the course of several weeks. Instead, they got H2 in 24 hours.

They theorize that the addition of the aluminum somehow acts as a catalyst to speed what is called the serpentinization process, which appears in rock as scale-like micro-fractures. It is in these fractures that deep earth researchers have inexplicably discovered extremophile bacteria like those that inhabit deep ocean thermal "smoker" vents and appear to live off the hydrogen roiling up from below the seafloor. In the serpentinized olivine's case, the pressure and heat generated by earth's gravity provides the energy needed to run the process.

The promise of the discovery is that it doesn't directly produce CO2 like steam reforming natural gas, nor does it take the 850 C required for electrolysis.

The discovery has excited the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) community, though the founder of The Rockefeller University's DCO program, Jesse Ausubel, cautions that "scaling this up to meet global energy needs in a carbon-free way would probably require 50 years. But a growing market for hydrogen in fuel cells could help pull the process into the market."

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