BMW Hydrogen 7: step closer to being environmentally sustainable after Cambridge University's research
BMW Hydrogen 7: step closer to being environmentally sustainable after Cambridge University’s research

Researchers at the Christian Doppler Laboratory at Cambridge University have successfully developed a technique to split hydrogen from oxygen in water using the comparatively inexpensive Cobalt as a catalyst. Vitally they have achieved this under normal conditions – with pH neutral water, surrounded by atmospheric oxygen, at room temperature – paving the way for future water splitting technology.

Dr Erwin Reisner, the lead researcher and head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at Cambridge University, said: “Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve hydrogen efficiently in water and in air. However, such conditions are essential for developing green hydrogen as a future energy source.

“Of course, many hurdles, such as the rather poor stability of the catalyst, remain to be addressed, but our finding provides a first step to produce green hydrogen under relevant conditions.”

The research team is now working at developing a “sunlight-driven water splitting system” that can produce hydrogen.

Although clean at the point of use and very efficient, a key drawback to the use of hydrogen as a fuel has always been its production. Most Hydrogen is produced from natural gas using an industrial process called steam reforming, an energy intensive process which produces carbon dioxide as a by-product and is neither renewable nor clean. The other main method of producing hydrogen is by electrolysis, but this uses expensive metals such as Platinum as a catalyst.

Hydrogen is often favoured as a viable alternative fuel because it has three times more energy per unit of weight than petrol and when it burns it produces nothing but water. Cars and buses which use fuel cells that run off hydrogen, such as the Hydrogen 7 BMW developed in 2006, have existed for a while. However, barriers such as safety concerns over the pressurised infrastructure and storage the gas requires, as well the environmental issues around hydrogen’s production, have held the technology back from being a replacement to fossil fuels for transport. At least one of those looks to be on the way to be being solved by this research.

The Cambridge research was funded by the EPSRC, the Christian Doppler Research Association and oil and gas firm the OMV Group. It was published online in the journal Angewandte Chemie last month.


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