Fertilizer, Gas Production Soon May Be Cleaner, Nanotech Researchers Say

Scientists say they may have found a way to churn out hydrogen, a key ingredient, with fewer emissions.

Bags of fertilizer sit at the edge of a farm in Australia in February 2013. Researchers say they've discovered a way to produce fertilizer with fewer carbon emissions.
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Fertilizer and fuel soon could become much cleaner.

University researchers in Europe and California said they've found a way to cheaply and cleanly produce pure hydrogen, a key ingredient both in making fertilizers and refining crude oil into gasoline.

It's a finding "that has the potential to revolutionize industrial hydrogen production," the team, made up of nanotechnology experts from the Stanford University School of Engineering and Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a statement.

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Hydrogen, while nature's most abundant element, is rarely found on its own and instead needs to be separated from other elements, the team explained. It most often globs onto oxygen to make water or onto carbon to make methane, an emission of natural gas.

Currently, scientists isolate hydrogen by separating it from natural gas – a process that's relatively cheap, but one that requires plenty of energy and gives off lots of greenhouse gases.

The researchers, however, discovered a way to get just as much hydrogen from water, and potentially at roughly the same price.

The process itself isn't new – known as electrolysis, it involves sticking a metallic probe into water. But because the most efficient metal used in electrolysis is platinum, the process is expensive: about $1 to $2 per kilogram for a global market that consumes about 55 billion kilograms of hydrogen per year.

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Hence, what the researchers did was adjust the atomic makeup of a far cheaper industrial metal, turning it into an electrolysis probe that proved almost as efficient as platinum. What's more, its eventual costs, once scaled up, could prove competitive with the process used for natural gas, they said.

"There are many pieces of the puzzle still needed to make this work, and much effort ahead to realize them," Thomas Jaramillo, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford and one of the project's lead researchers, said in a statement. "However, we can get huge returns by moving from carbon-intensive resources to renewable, sustainable technologies to produce the chemicals we need for food and energy."

The team's findings were published in the journal Nature Chemistry on Sunday.

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