/ 28 June 2019

Making cheap hydrogen a reality

Dr Malcolm Gillespie
Dr Malcolm Gillespie, research and development specialist at Hydrox Holdings

Hydrogen has long been touted as the fuel of the future. The most abundant chemical element in the universe, it occurs naturally, but needs to be separated from other elements such as oxygen. Current water electrolysis technologies are complex and expensive, making them unfeasible. They are also driven by fossil-fuel sources, which contribute to pollution. But a team of researchers in Johannesburg has found a way to significantly cut the cost of hydrogen production, making the possibility of using hydrogen as a fuel realistic at last.

Dr Malcolm Gillespie, research and development specialist at Hydrox Holdings, says conventional water-splitting technology relies on expensive hydrogen separation membranes, but his team has developed a unique technology, Divergent-Electrode-Flow-Through (Deft), which separates hydrogen from oxygen without a membrane.

“We are the first in the world to successfully develop a totally membrane-less hydrogen production system, a process that is set to change the way in which hydrogen is produced in future as it uses fewer components, making the entire system of production simpler and more robust, and significantly reducing the cost. It’s also pollution-free.”

A zero-emission fuel, hydrogen could be the answer to the planet’s need for fuel to run our vehicles, power industry and manufacturing, and provide us with electricity, reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming from passenger and commercial vehicles, as well as our reliance on waning crude oil reserves.

“The potential of Deft technology is enormous,” says Gillespie. “The project was launched as a research and development initiative and all aspects of the development have taken place in South Africa. Because R&D is cost-intensive, we approached government agencies for funding and although the response was positive, there was none available. A private-held company was formed through the issuing of shares, and funding was obtained from private individuals.”

The end result was achieved as the result of a team effort by a group of engineers and scientists at Hydrox Holdings, who continue to work with researchers at several universities to improve the catalytic properties of the electrodes in order to enhance efficiencies and further reduce the costs of hydrogen production. The Deft process has been presented at several international scientific forums, the most recent being the International Convention on Electrolysis in Norway in June 2019.

“Our invention has surprised the scientific world and has opened up several possibilities,” says Gillespie. “It’s truly pioneering in that no one else in the world can define their technology as membrane-less. With fewer working parts, it has a much longer operational lifespan and we have already obtained registered patents in most major countries worldwide.”

The development of the technology started on a small scale. The challenge now is to scale up. Hydrox has entered into a collaboration agreement with Shell GameChanger and this has given the company the financing to develop a larger concept prototype.