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Bubbling faster towards a clean, inexpensive hydrogen fuel

A new finding represents a step forward toward greater adoption of hydrogen as a key part of the world’s energy infrastructure.

The purple glow of hydrogen gas in its plasma state. Image by Alchemist (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
The purple glow of hydrogen gas in its plasma state. Image by Alchemist (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The path to low cost and clean hydrogen fuel is a long and winding one. However, a research group have taken a step further in the quest. Scientists based at University of Texas at Austin have successfully developed an inexpensive way to solve one half of the water-splitting equation required to produce hydrogen as clean energy.

The new process involves the use of sunlight to efficiently split off oxygen molecules from water. This could be the beginnings for the greater adoption of hydrogen for the energy infrastructure of many nations.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind.

The research breakthrough was via a technique for producing electrically conductive paths through a thick silicon dioxide layer. This is a process that does not cost much in terms of resources to run. More importantly, the process can be scaled to high manufacturing volumes.

This began with using a technique first deployed in the manufacturing of semiconductor electronic chips. The scientists showed that by coating the silicon dioxide layer with a thin film of aluminum and then heating the entire structure, arrays of nanoscale “spikes” of aluminum that completely bridge the silicon dioxide layer are formed.

These spikes can then readily be replaced by nickel or other materials that help catalyze the water-splitting reactions.

After this, once illuminated by sunlight, the resultant devices can efficiently oxidize water to form oxygen molecules while also generating hydrogen at a separate electrode and exhibit stability under extended operation.

Since the techniques employed to create these devices are commonly used in manufacturing of semiconductor electronics, they can be scaled-up for mass production.

In terms of applications, the technology can be used for fuel cell batteries in areas like long-haul trucking, or with the advancement of hydrogen technology as a boon to energy storage.

The research appears in the journal Nature Communications, where the paper is headed “Scalable, highly stable Si-based metal-insulator-semiconductor photoanodes for water oxidation fabricated using thin-film reactions and electrodeposition.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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