Hydrogen is often hailed as a promising environmentally-friendly fuel source, but it is also relatively expensive to produce. However, new research conducted at Princeton University and Rutgers University poses the opportunity to produce hydrogen from water at a lower cost and more efficiently than previously thought possible.

The research, led by Princeton chemistry professor Annabella Selloni, takes its inspiration from nature – or more specifically, a bacterium that produces hydrogen from water by using enzymes known as di-iron hydro­ge­nases. Selloni and her fellow scientists made use of a computer model to work out how they could incorporate this function of the enzymes into practical synthetic catalysts, in order to enable humans to produce hydrogen from water.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Selloni and her co-authors detail how they made changes to existing water-to-hydrogen catalysts, which are often blighted by a susceptibility to oxygen poisoning. While aiming to improve the stability of the structure in water, the team happily fell upon a catalyst which also appears to be tolerant to oxygen, and without sacrificing efficiency.

The new artificial catalyst could be produced from abundant and inexpensive components like iron, offering a potentially cheap method of producing hydrogen.

The next step for Selloni and her team is to move the research beyond computer models into the real world, and to this end, they hope to eventually produce a working catalyst which produces vast quantities of inexpensive hydrogen for use as a fuel source.