Renewable energy using rocks? Scientists figure out how to successfully split hydrogen gas from water

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: renewable energy, hydrogen gas, water splitting

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(NaturalNews) French scientists have stumbled upon an amazing new way to generate usable hydrogen gas from water (H20) that requires no oil, gas or other fossil fuels. According to BBC News, the Earth-friendly technique involves using the mineral olivine to naturally split hydrogen atoms from H2O, a process that some researchers say could revolutionize renewable energy production.

Recently published in the journal American Mineralogist, a study explaining the technique notes that it can actually help sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which has powerful implications for environmental health. But beyond this, it shows how certain natural minerals, when heated and put under pressure, can provide clean, renewable sources of energy.

Researchers from the University of Lyon, who presented their findings at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, submerged strips of olivine in very hot water, effectively stripping one oxygen and one hydrogen atom from H2O to produce the mineral serpentine. Also added to this mix was ruby, or aluminum oxide, which provided a source of aluminum atoms.

The sum of these minerals was placed into a miniature pressure cooker composed of two diamonds and then compressed at 2,000 atmospheres of pressure to force a reaction. The team watched through the translucent diamonds as the reaction took place, which they discovered was sped up significantly as a result of the ruby.

"The mineralogists at Lyon were expecting the reaction to take weeks, if not months, so having set the experiment running one afternoon they were shocked to discover that half of the olivine crystal had already reacted when they took a look at it the next morning," writes Simon Redfern for BBC News.

Since serpentinization already occurs naturally, using it to produce hydrogen is environmentally friendly

This process, known officially as serpentinization, occurs normally in nature. Typically observed along mid-ocean ridges, the production and release of hydrogen from the depths of the ocean is the natural result of seawater mixing with rocks and other minerals, which in turn feeds bacteria and microbes living in ocean rocks.

But serpentinization does not normally occur as quickly in nature as it did in the laboratory, which has powerful implications for renewable energy production. According to the researchers who worked on the experiment, the elimination of fossil fuels from the equation renders it a novel form of "green chemistry" that could provide long-term energy production solutions.

"If you were to process around 10 percent of the current hydrogen production by this method it would require a volume of rock similar to that used for cement production today," says Dr. Isabelle Daniel, one of the study's authors.

Serpentine helps regulate atmospheric CO2 levels

Beyond the energy production potential, producing hydrogen in this manner may also provide solutions for excess atmospheric carbon, which some believe is at least partially responsible for triggering climate change. Serpentine, by its very nature, is known to capture atmospheric carbon, and some say it likely plays a powerful role in naturally regulating atmospheric CO2 levels.

"Serpentine in nature is known to actively scour CO2 by carbonation, and has previously been suggested as a feedstock for sequestering atmospheric carbon on a global scale," adds Redfern. "There is evidence that weathering of olivine to serpentine in nature has, in the geological deep past, played a part in controlling atmospheric CO2."

As far as when such technology will be fine-tuned enough for commercial use, some experts say it could be another 50 years. But with growing demand for hydrogen fuel cells, we may see hydrogen-splitting olivine hit the energy market a whole lot sooner.

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