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Researchers make unexpected discovery that could have profound impact on hydrogen fuel production: 'We need a way to bridge the gap'

"The unexpected interaction … was key to our success."

"The unexpected interaction ... was key to our success."

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Researchers from the Riken Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan may have discovered the key to creating cheap hydrogen fuel, Interesting Engineering reported.

Hydrogen fuel, which burns without producing any planet-overheating air pollution, may well be the future of clean energy. But in order for that to actually happen, some technological advancements still need to be made.

The main issue with hydrogen fuel is that, while it does burn without producing air pollution, the most common processes used to manufacture it create large amounts of planet-overheating carbon dioxide, essentially defeating the entire purpose, as Earthjustice explained. 

While there are alternative processes that can create hydrogen fuel more cleanly, they tend to be extremely expensive, making the whole thing economically unviable. 

The new process from the Riken researchers aims to solve that secondary issue. The scientists found that by replacing some of the very rare and expensive iridium used in the hydrogen fuel-making process with the more common manganese, they could bring the costs way down.

Their findings were published in a study in the journal Nature.

"We need a way to bridge the gap between rare metal- and common metal-based electrolyzers, so that we can make a gradual transition over many years to completely sustainable green hydrogen," Ryuhei Nakamura, one of the study's authors, said in a Riken news release.

While more investigation is needed, Nakamura also said the new iridium-manganese catalyst has a high potential for immediate usefulness, which is good news for the clean hydrogen industry and our planet.

With the catalyst, researchers were able to produce hydrogen continuously for roughly four months at 82% efficiency.

"The unexpected interaction between manganese oxide and iridium was key to our success," study co-author Ailong Li said.

The team aims to continue studying the chemical interaction between iridium and manganese to further reduce the amount of iridium required. It's already teamed up with industry partners who have enhanced the catalyst, which shows promise for the future.

If the industry can produce clean hydrogen fuel affordably and at scale, it could soon be used to power the most heavily polluting types of vehicles in the world — including airplanes and cargo ships (both of which have already been successfully tested with hydrogen fuel) — cutting down massively on emissions of planet-overheating gases and creating a cleaner, safer world for humans.

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