By Shawna Williams
Jules Verne once prophesized that ‘water is the coal of
the future.’ On Wednesday, March 12, Theanne Schiros (ESRB) encouraged her
colleagues at SSRL to help make that happen. About 30 people came to the
hour-long talk on "Scientific Challenges and Research Opportunities in
Hydrogen Energy Technologies," and many stayed afterward to discuss issues
raised in the talk.
SSRL Deputy Director Jo Stöhr introduced Schiros, saying
that "the broader topic—the future of energy resources in the world—is an
"DOE has estimated that CO2 emissions will increase 60
percent in the next 50 years," Schiros said, "with potentially dramatic
climate change consequences. This is why developing alternative fuel
sources, like hydrogen, is so important." Schiros said she hoped her talk
would inspire some SSRL researchers to work on effective means of making
and storing hydrogen.
Photoelectrolysis is a one-step process in which
sunlight is absorbed in a semiconductor, splitting water into hydrogen
and oxygen. This is one of the ways hydrogen can be produced and used
as an inexhaustible, clean energy carrier. Hydrogen has enormous
potential to form the foundation for a globally sustainable, pollution
free, renewable energy system and meet growing energy demands while
reducing, and eventually eliminating, CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
(graphic by DOE)
Hydrogen cells are already available for use in cars and
in fact hydrogen fueling stations have appeared in Iceland and Southern
California. However they are expensive and the current method of storing
the fuel—cryogenics—is energetically inefficient. Moreover, fossil fuels
are required to make the hydrogen.
There are many potential ways to make hydrogen renewably.
Schiros’s own thesis work focuses using the sun’s energy to strip hydrogen
from water, a process called photocatalytic decomposition. Other
possibilities for hydrogen production include biomass decomposition and
photobiological processes. For example, algae can be forced to make
hydrogen, and decomposing peanut shells can produce hydrogen along with
fertilizer while sequestering CO2 in the form of solid carbon.
A bigger problem is storage and transport of hydrogen,
which is normally a gas. Some materials, including carbon nanotubes, have
shown promise in absorbing and desorbing hydrogen as needed, and would
take up little space. Before these can be regularly used, though, some way
of making hydrogen cells from these materials cheaply and reliably must be
"There are good reasons for making this effort," according
to Schiros. Unlike many other energy sources, "with hydrogen cells the
payoff is huge and they essentially have no negative consequences."
For more information on hydrogen energy technology, see:
For more information on SSRL, see: