Hydrogen: A clean fuel for the future?

The need to reduce our over reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source is a pressing challenge, driven by the need to mitigate the environmental damage already sustained. Research at Sheffield is looking at alternative energy sources and how we can produce them efficiently and at scale.

An image representing water splitting into hydrogen

Hydrogen research at sheffield

Dr Jennifer Hack is developing materials and methods to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of green hydrogen production through proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis. PEM electrolysers are currently the most widely considered technology for green hydrogen production, due to their relative maturity and their ability to respond quickly to fluctuations in power - such as those that occur due to the intermittent nature of renewables.

PEM electrolysers are a really exciting technology for enabling net-zero targets to be realised, but there are some key materials challenges that must be addressed to ensure they can be scaled-up and implemented in a sustainable way. They use expensive materials like iridium and platinum as catalysts and there is a pressing need to identify alternative materials and/or make the existing materials last longer. My research aims to identify and design, higher-performing, more-durable electrolyser components. By utilising advanced imaging techniques like 4D X-ray and neutron CT, we can delve into the complex relationship between the materials morphology, performance and degradation within electrolysers and study how these components evolve over time.

“By developing affordable and sustainable green hydrogen, we can move towards a cleaner and more secure energy future.”

Dr Jennifer Hack

Lecturer in Sustainable Materials

Why choose hydrogen? 

Hydrogen is gaining attention as a potential clean energy source, particularly when used in Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells. These cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, producing only water, heat, and zero harmful emissions. This makes it a much more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels, which release significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas. Hydrogen is also expected to have applications in heavy industry such as steel production and research into green hydrogen future for steel industry is already taking place at Sheffield’s AMRC.

How do we get hydrogen?

Currently, most of the hydrogen produced globally is via a process called steam methane reforming, in which natural gas is reacted with high-temperature, high-pressure steam to form hydrogen and CO2. The CO2 is a by-product, and the process itself is very energy intensive, meaning we still do not reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. 

Recently, green hydrogen has been gaining traction as the preferred 'colour' of hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis of water, where an electric current splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Assuming the electricity used comes from renewable sources, like solar or wind power, the process is emission-free.

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