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Researchers at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have created a small scale "hydrogen generator" that uses light and a two-dimensional graphene platform to boost production of the hard-to-make element.

The research also unveiled a previously unknown property of graphene. The two-dimensional chain of carbon atoms not only gives and receives electrons, but can also transfer them into another substance.

Hydrogen is virtually everywhere on the planet, but the element is typically bonded with other elements and must be separated from oxygen in H2O to produce free hydrogen. The commercial separation process uses natural gas to react with superheated steam to strip away hydrogen atoms producing hydrogen fuel, but also carbon dioxide —a greenhouse gas byproduct which escapes into the atmosphere.

Argonne's early-stage generator, composed of many tiny assemblies, is proof that hydrogen can be produced without burning fossil fuels. The scale is small, a little smaller than the diameter of spider silk. Scaling this research up in the future may mean that you could replace the gas in your cars and generators with hydrogen—a greener option, because burning hydrogen fuel emits only water vapor.

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