The promise of a hydrogen economy, which would lessen dependence on nonrenewable energy sources such as fossil fuels, hinges on the ability to produce and store large amounts of the clean-burning element. New results from experiments on a novel catalyst suggest that it can be used to coax hydrogen from water without the need for severe reaction conditions.

"We have discovered a catalyst that can produce ready quantities of hydrogen without the need for extreme cold temperatures or high pressures, which are often required in other production and storage methods," remarks Mahdi Abu-Omar of Purdue University. The compound he and his colleagues used is a so-called coordination complex based on the metal rhenium. Originally looking for a method to convert chemicals called organosilanes into silanols, the team combined organosilanes and water in the presence of the rhenium complex at ambient temperature and pressure. After an hour, the reaction had produced hydrogen gas in addition to silanols. According to a report published today in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the method generates a large amount of hydrogen compared to the amount of water used.

"The big question is, of course, whether it would be economically viable to create organosilane fuels in the quantities necessary to power a world full of [fuel-cell] cars," Abu-Omar says. "As of right now, there simply isn't enough demand to make more than small volumes of this liquid, and while it's a relatively easy process, it's not dirt cheap." One of the drawbacks, the team reports, is the high cost of the organosilane starting materials. But if the silicon byproduct can be sold or recycled efficiently, the new approach could be economically feasible. The current results prove the initial premise, the scientists say, but more tests and scrutiny are required before it could be scaled up for wide use.