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Producing ‘green’ hydrogen energy just got a lot easier • Earth.com

The race for clean and sustainable energy is gaining momentum, and green hydrogen will be in the spotlight. This versatile fuel can replace fossil fuels in everything from transportation to heavy industry.

There’s just one catch – producing green hydrogen in the massive quantities we need has seemed impossible due to its dependence on an extremely rare metal: iridium.

But a breakthrough by the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resources Science (CSRS) in Japan could change everything.

Their new technique reduces the amount of iridium needed to produce green hydrogen by as much as 95%, a breakthrough in scaling up this revolutionary technology.

Green hydrogen

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, can be extracted from water through electrolysis, a process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. When used as a fuel, hydrogen emits only water vapor, making it a zero-emission energy source.

Traditionally, extracting hydrogen from water has required significant amounts of energy, often obtained from fossil fuels, which undermines the goal of clean energy.

The solution is electrolysis powered by renewable energy such as solar or wind energy. This process creates “green hydrogen” without leaving a carbon footprint.

Electrolysis requires efficient catalysts, and iridium, although very effective, is rare and expensive. This makes large-scale production of green hydrogen expensive and challenging.

Iridium in hydrogen production

The RIKEN team’s innovation lies in the method of combining iridium with manganese oxide. Instead of using a large block of iridium, they isolated individual iridium atoms and strategically dispersed them on the surface of manganese oxide, a more common metal. This careful arrangement and bonding produces unique chemical interactions.

This new catalyst achieves the same excellent hydrogen production rate as pure iridium, but with a fraction (only 5%!) of the rare, expensive metal. This makes it a much more accessible and cost-effective solution.

During electrolysis, catalysts can degrade over time, reducing efficiency and increasing costs. This breakthrough catalytic converter maintains constant performance for an extraordinary period of time – 3,000 hours means over four months of continuous hydrogen production without any loss of performance.

Oxidation states refer to the number of electrons an atom has lost or gained in a chemical bond. Scientists believe that iridium when bound to manganese oxide achieves an unusual +6 oxidation state, which may be the reason for its significantly increased efficiency.

The importance of green hydrogen

“We expect that our catalyst will be easily applicable to real-world applications,” says Ryuhei Nakamura, principal investigator of the study. This means existing green hydrogen plants can be retrofitted, making the transition smoother.

Less iridium means lower upfront costs, making green hydrogen more competitive and attractive for investment. Iridium shortage and high price create a huge barrier to increasing the production of green hydrogen.

This new technique dramatically reduces the amount of iridium required, making the entire process much cheaper to set up and run.

When the cost of technology falls, it becomes a more tempting investment opportunity. Lower upfront costs resulting from reduced demand for iridium could attract a wider range of investors, accelerating the financing of green hydrogen projects and development.

Faster transition

This breakthrough could give us decades of respite as we develop truly sustainable catalysts made from common metals. Ideally, the production of green hydrogen would not rely on rare metals at all.

However, developing efficient catalysts using earth-rich metals takes time. This breakthrough buys us decades, significantly improving efficiency while working towards fully sustainable solutions.

The global energy transition cannot happen overnight. This technology provides a realistic path: increased production of green hydrogen while giving us time to improve catalysts that are completely independent of rare metals.

Green hydrogen is part of a bigger picture

The team is already working with industry leaders to test their catalyst on a large scale. We could see this technology implemented sooner rather than later.

Collaboration with industry players means a quick transition from the laboratory to testing in large hydrogen production plants. This significantly speeds up practical application.

If the tests are successful, this technology can be integrated quite quickly into existing hydrogen production processes. This means we may not have to wait years or decades to see the benefits.

The RIKEN catalytic converter is fantastic news, but remember that it is one piece of a much larger puzzle. To truly unlock the potential of green hydrogen, we need:

  • Investments everywhere: Governments, companies and investors must increase financing for green hydrogen infrastructure, from production to distribution.
  • Team effort: Green hydrogen will work best with other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. To balance all this, smart energy grids are needed.
  • Consumer factor: Industries need incentives to change, but we as individuals also need incentives. Green hydrogen-powered vehicles or energy storage solutions may become part of our everyday lives in the future.

This breakthrough reminds us of the incredible potential of science to address global energy challenges. The green hydrogen revolution is still in its early stages, but such progress makes it seem within reach.

Let’s stay informed, get involved and push for policies that accelerate innovation and lower costs – a cleaner and greener future awaits.

The study was published in the journal Science.

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