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Researchers look to seawater for renewable hydrogen fuel

Posted at 2:39 PM, Nov 25, 2020

Beyond the beaches of the world, lies the potential for oceans of energy.

"I'm very excited about this because it's a very renewable energy-based technology,” said Professor Bruce Logan of Penn State University.

Logan and university researchers recently created a device that removes salt from seawater in a cheaper way, allowing that water to then be used to create a renewable form of hydrogen fuel.

“There's a lot of interest in renewable hydrogen,” Logan said. “Most of the hydrogen made today is made from fossil fuels, and so, we're interested in making that hydrogen from water.”

That involves splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The problem? Seawater also has salt, which needs to be removed first and that’s expensive to do.

However, the “seawater electrolyzer” that Logan and his team worked on takes care of that issue cheaply by using a special membrane and without requiring expensive desalination plants. The findings were recently published in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science.

“Hydrogen is a great fuel,” he said. “It's been examined as a fuel for many decades now.”

About 97 percent of all the water on earth is in the ocean, which means if it could be used efficiently to make hydrogen fuel, it could be a game-changer.

“As we look to de-carbonize our fossil fuel infrastructure, we also can use it primarily for heavy-duty vehicles,” Logan said. “Airbus is looking to actually make airplanes that fly on hydrogen.”

For now, though, their device would need to be scaled-up to a much larger version.

“There are many nations and companies and nations across the world looking to do this. One of the biggest proposed hydrogen plants is in Saudi Arabia -- $5 billion,” Logan said. “I would hope to convince them that it might be cheaper and better to use seawater directly, you know, in a system like this.”

It’s a possibility that might one day create a bridge between our energy needs on land and the power in the sea.