A new paper from University of Houston describes a cheap and effective electrocatalyst that can help split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen burns very clean and is often mentioned as a potential energy carrier of the future. That’s probably the reason why the news from Houston sparked a huge debate on Reddit and inspired many comments about a future hydrogen-based society. But what are the real perspectives?
Hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels, biomass, or by electrolysis of water/steam. If the electrolysis is powered by renewable energy from for instance windmills or solar panels the production of hydrogen leaves a very small environmental footprint. It also means that the fluctuating energy from wind and sun can be stored as hydrogen gas, ready for consumption when wind and sun can’t cover our need for energy. But the cost of using this technology is still significantly higher than the cost of burning fossil fuels.
For decades, Topsoe has researched how we can secure sufficient energy supplies and handle pollution. And hydrogen can prove to be a viable solution. We already produce solid oxide electrolysis cells (SOEC) that use electric power to produce hydrogen from steam at high temperature, which makes it the most efficient electrolysis system known today. This is a different technology than the alkaline electrolysis used in the project presented by University of Houston. Alkaline electrolysis usually takes place at temperatures around 80-90°C.
One way that hydrogen can be used in a sustainable setup is for upgrading biogas to pipeline grade natural gas that can be used directly in existing infrastructure. But SOEC technology can also open up for a whole new segment of green and sustainable chemicals from renewable carbon sources. Our eCOs solution is an example. It reduces the greenhouse gas CO2 to CO, which is a chemical with a lot of applications in different industries.
The solution presented in the paper from University of Houston is an attempt to improve the well-known iron/nickel electrode for oxygen evolution (the research is done at ‘half-cell level” focusing on the oxygen evolution, not the hydrogen evolution – both are necessary in the electrolysis of water). At this point, we do not know how efficient the proposed technology will be.
However, we are convinced that catalysis will play a crucial role in solving the energy challenges we all face. Whether the future energy carrier of choice will be hydrogen remains to be seen. It could just as well be methanol. Or ammonia. Or none of them. Or a combination.
Which solution turns out to be right will depend on the environmental footprint, how easy it is to store and use, security of supply, and many more factors, including the very important issue of cost.