NREL’s John Turner says that Nanoptek’s process is “very, very promising.” And Harriet Kung, the acting director of the DOE’s office of basic energy sciences, which has funded Nanoptek’s work, says that the strained-titania approach is “one of the major exciting advances” since titania was first discovered to be a photocatalyst in the 1970s.
If it works as expected, the technology could help address one of the fundamental problems with using hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogen is attractive because it is light, and burning it only produces water. But today most hydrogen is made from natural gas, a process that releases considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. The other main option is electrolysis. But even if it’s powered by clean energy, such as electricity from photovoltaics, electrolysis is inefficient and expensive. Guerra says using strained titania, and Nanoptek’s inexpensive manufacturing process, makes the process cheap and efficient enough to compete with processes that create hydrogen from natural gas. What’s more, Guerra says, the Nanoptek technology can be located closer to customers than large-scale natural-gas processes, which could significantly reduce transportation costs, thereby helping make the technology attractive. And if in the future carbon emissions are taxed or regulated, Nanoptek’s carbon-free approach is another advantage.
Turner says that in addition to making hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles, Nanoptek’s process–if it is indeed efficient and inexpensive, as the company claims–could also be important for large-scale solar electricity. If solar is ever to be a dominant source of power, finding ways of storing the energy for night use will be essential. And hydrogen, he says, could be a good way to store it.