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How seawater can be used to generate valuable hydrogen energy

The current process of obtaining hydrogen can emit a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but scientists have found a new — greener — way.
How seawater can be used to generate valuable hydrogen energy
Posted at 2:19 PM, Oct 26, 2023

Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel, and when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell — like a battery — it produces heat and electricity with water vapor as its only byproduct. But extracting hydrogen and isolating it so that it can be used in this way isn't as simple.

Today, most hydrogen is generated by heating coal and natural gas with steam, which produces a good amount of carbon dioxide and nullifies hydrogen's positive impact. So two scientists from Stanford thought it would be a good idea to look at how we can make hydrogen production greener. The answer they came up with was seawater.

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There is a lot of science that goes into it, but the best way to explain it is seawater doesn't have as much stuff in it as desalinated water. By using seawater — which is incredibly abundant — scientists have helped create a new filtering system that can still produce hydrogen while saving money and cutting down on carbon emissions. 

"Maybe the easiest analogy or metaphor would be a rain jacket — like a breathable rain jacket," explained Stanford professor Thomas Jaramillo. "Rain jackets are multiple layers where they allow some things through because you want to breathe — you don't want to sweat — but you want to prevent water from getting in. And so we're taking that approach by saying, 'Now if you give me water and a whole bunch of other things that are probably bad, how can I use a multi-layered approach, which is a bi-polar membrane approach, to try and control the transport."

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The current U.S. demand for hydrogen fuel is 10 million metric tons per year. By the year 2050, that number is expected to grow to between 20 million and 40 million metric tons annually. 

"Hydrogen, as a molecule, is really important to our economy and our civilization, even if you don't see it every day," said Thomas Nielander, an associate scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory . "We need it to make the fertilizers that we have to have for our farms. We need it for upgrading all sorts of materials that are in cars and plastics." 

Jaramillo said the science behind their new filtering system is sound, but it's Washington they worry about due to current spending practices that don't advocate for the use of hydrogen as much as other fuels

"Technological advances actually are there for us to probably make a substantial change to our earth right now," Jaramillo said. "We just need governments to actually put money into those things."

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