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New green power source inspired by plant life

  • by ANGUS HOWARTH
 

SCOTTISH scientists, inspired by plants, say they have devised a way to generate green energy from water “on an industrial scale”.

The new process could one day see hydrogen replace methane as the gas of choice for energy, “significantly reducing the country’s carbon footprint”.

If the electricity used to create the hydrogen were generated by wind or solar power the gas would be “an almost totally clean source of power”, they claim.

Hydrogen is a powerful source of energy and can be burned to produce power with little impact on the environment.

It can be produced by splitting water into its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen. The process is usually done by electrolysis, using a current to break the bonds between the two elements and release them as gases.

But industrial processes to produce pure hydrogen from water require expensive equipment and rigorous oversight to ensure that the gases do not mix.

Accidental mixing can lead to accelerated decay of materials involved in the process or even dangerously explosive mixtures, reports journal Nature Chemistry.

Now scientists from the University of Glasgow say they have taken a leaf from nature’s book, harnessing the way plants use photosynthesis to produce 
energy.

Plants use the energy of the sun to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen at separate times and at separate physical locations in the plant’s structure.

Professor Lee Cronin and Dr Mark Symes say they have managed for the first time to replicate plants’ ability to decouple the production of hydrogen and oxygen from water, using what they call an electron-coupled proton buffer (ECPB).

It captures the hydrogen when the water is split, meaning only oxygen gas is given off – and the hydrogen can be stored to be used at a time of choosing.

Dr Symes said: “Currently, much of the industrial production of hydrogen relies on reformation of fossil fuels, but if the electricity is provided via solar, wind or wave sources, we can create an almost totally clean source of power.

“The ECPB is made from commercially-available phosphomolyb-dic acid.

“The properties of this material allow us to collect and store the protons and electrons which are generated when we oxidise water, to give oxygen as the only gaseous product.”

Prof Cronin added: “One of the problems of generating electricity via renewable power is that the output either needs to be used immediately or stored.

“Using renewable power to produce hydrogen allows us to capture the electricity in a state which is easily stored

“In the next couple of decades we’re likely to face significant problems because the infrastructure which allows the distribution of electricity across the country via power lines is ageing badly and will become increasingly less fit for purpose.

“However, the existing gas infrastructure which brings gas to homes across the country could just as easily carry hydrogen as it currently does methane.”

 

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