Israeli scientists find chemical process that could lead to hydrogen-fueled cars

Researchers say they’ve unlocked a mechanism enabling use of solar energy to split hydrogen peroxide, potentially helping create cheap, efficient and clean fuel

A hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai in 2014 (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
A hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai in 2014 (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A team of Israeli researchers says it has taken an important step toward the creation of environmentally friendly hydrogen-fueled cars.

The extraction of energy from hydrogen gas is a carbon-neutral, and thus environmentally friendly, process, but there’s a catch: pure hydrogen gas is almost impossible to find on Earth. To this day, the main means for producing hydrogen gas at industrial scales are inefficient and produce the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

So scientists have been searching for years for carbon-neutral way to mass-produce hydrogen gas, which in turn could provide for a safe, clean energy source for cars, factories and more.

One of the most abundant potential sources for hydrogen is water. If scientists are able to efficiently split the water molecule H₂O into its component parts, it could force hydrogen molecules, H₂, to interact with oxygen molecules, O₂, in a process that would release a large amount of energy, and whose waste product is harmless water vapor.

But efforts to perfect the chemical mechanism have until now led to methods that expend huge amounts of energy in order to produce the reaction.

Now, scientists at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and the Technion in Haifa say they have found a key missing link in a chemical process involving solar power that could allow for the ongoing, automatic conversion of water into hydrogen fuel in a way that could become efficient enough to allow for the mass-production of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These are easier to refuel than electric batteries and should allow for far higher mileage than current battery technology allows.

In an announcement to the media Tuesday, researchers Arik Yochelis and Iris Visoly-Fisher of Ben-Gurion University and Avner Rothschild of the Technion said they discovered a chemical mechanism by which hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂) is photochemically split over iron-oxide photo-electrodes.

The process relies on solar energy, rather than on injecting huge amounts of man-made energy into the reaction, as current methods demand.

They published their findings October 9 in the journal Nature.

“Beyond the scientific breakthrough, we have shown that the photo-electrochemical reaction mechanism belongs to a family of chemical reactions for which Prof. Gerhard Ertl was awarded with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, about a decade ago. Our discovery opens new strategies for photochemical processes,” Yochelis is quoted as saying.

Ertl won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on chemical interactions on solid surfaces, which the Nobel prize committee said had profound implications for the development of non-polluting fuel cells, the study of climate change, and more.

The new research was funded by the Israeli ministries of energy and science, the European Research Council and the Adelis Foundation.

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