Cow poop might make cleaner hydrogen gas a reality

The new ‘transformative’ production method substitutes fossil fuels for biochar made from animal and agricultural waste.
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Close-up of three cows
Electricity requirements have long hindered hydrogen gas production systems. Deposit Photos

Scientists say they have discovered an unlikely ally in the race to produce sustainable, efficient hydrogen fuel—cow manure. According to recent research from engineers at the University of Illinois Chicago, a new method that combines the animal waste and other agricultural industry byproducts with solar and wind power could reduce hydrogen gas production’s energy needs by as much as 600-percent.

Hydrogen fuel has long been seen as an extremely promising sustainable energy source, but most existing production systems today still defeat the overall purpose. That’s because the industrial levels of electricity needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules (a process known as electrolysis) are usually only obtained by burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. UIC engineers, however, recently wondered if they could sub out the costly, pollution-heavy fuels for biochar—a carbon-rich powersource that can be created by mixing sulfuric acid with agricultural, animal, or sewage waste. Their results, detailed in a new study published in Cell Reports Physical Science, appear incredibly promising. 

“These are world record numbers; it’s the highest anyone has demonstrated,” paper co-author and postdoctoral scholar Rohit Chauhan said in an accompanying announcement.

Each of the team’s different varieties of biochar derived from sugarcane husks, paper waste, hemp, and cow manure all reportedly reduced the power needed for electrolysis. But of the five options, it was the cow dung biochar that proved the clear winner—cutting down electricity needs by 600-percent to just a fifth of a volt. In a follow-up test, researchers found they could power the cow manure-aided electrolysis reaction by using a single solar cell that produces less power than a AA battery. In doing so, almost 35-percent of the biochar and solar energy sources are converted into hydrogen fuel.

[Related: Welcome aboard the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell superyacht.]

In a statement, UIC engineer and research lead Meenesh Signh called the findings “transformative,” and claimed their team is the first to show such a system is not only possible, but energy efficient. 

The new method still isn’t totally clean, since burning biochar produces CO2 emissions. That said, researchers stipulate that future designs could incorporate equipment to capture the resultant carbon dioxide, and even use the byproduct for drink carbonation systems or even the production of ethylene for manufacturing.

“It not only diversifies the utilization of biowaste but enables the clean production of different chemicals beyond hydrogen,” paper co-lead author Nishithan Kani further explained in a statement. “This cheap way of making hydrogen could allow farmers to become self-sustainable for their energy needs or create new streams of revenue.”