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Researchers in Japan have found a way to make hydrogen by using only methanol and sunlight, writes IEEE Spectrum. Hydrogen is potentially a very environmentally friendly energy source; the residual product is just water. The problem is that the process we use today to produce hydrogen requires a lot of energy. Today we use natural gas to get enough energy to split water into hydrogen. Unfortunately, this process produces greenhouse gases, which makes hydrogen gas less environmentally friendly.
The researchers at Shinshus Research Initiative for Supra-Materials in Nagano have now developed a new two-step process that can eventually eliminate the need for natural gas. They basically used a semiconductor material, barium tantalum oxynitride, as a catalyst to streamline the process. When the researchers added a platinum catalyst, the efficiency of the process increased enormously. According to the researchers' report, the new method is 100 times more efficient at producing hydrogen than the current method.
This means that sunlight, instead of natural gas, is enough to drive the process. In the study, the researchers used methanol instead of water to extract the hydrogen gas. But ideally, you want to use water because it is free. There is a lot of it on our planet.
Early tests also show that other catalysts may mean that the method can also use water as a raw material in the future. Despite the large increase in efficiency, researchers need to improve the process, even more, to make it possible. Researchers, therefore, continue to look for new materials that can have a better effect.
"We need another similar leap in efficiency increase for this to be practically useful. We do not yet know which material ultimately turns out to be the best catalyst" says Takashi Hisatomi, one of the researchers behind the discovery in a comment to IEEE Spectrum.