From Plumbing to Plastic: How Wastewater Treatment Can Be the Key to Hydrogen Fuel

From Plumbing to Plastic: How Wastewater Treatment Can Be the Key to Hydrogen Fuel

February 9, 2021 0 By Frankie Wallace

Despite its name and nature, wastewater has valuable potential in solving the world’s sustainability crisis in the form of hydrogen fuel production.

Hydrogen is one of the cleanest sources of fuel in the world—when harvested sustainably—and it just so happens to be found in high concentrations within our wastewater.

Aquatech reports that over 95% of the world’s current hydrogen production takes place through steam reformation of natural gas. This process is more expensive than fossil fuels and doesn’t have the environmental benefits of cleaner methods. Wastewater treatment can be the key to sustainable hydrogen usage.

Now, engineers all over the world are looking to harness this power from our plumbing to the production line, implementing the harvested hydrogen in the production of everything from fuel cells to plastics.

Here’s what you should know.

Hydrogen fuel has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 90 million tons per year in European industries alone.

Hydrogen, while less talked about as an alternative energy source, can be a more effective fuel source for our vehicles, homes, and workplaces than renewables like wind or solar. Combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, hydrogen can produce heat and electricity with zero-carbon byproducts. Water is the only other resulting product of this fuel type, making it one of the cleanest sources of energy on the planet. Additionally, it is one of the most abundant substances on the planet.

The European Commission has estimated that this fuel type has the potential to cut carbon emissions by 90 million tons per year in European industries alone. But getting there may be a difficult process.

Unfortunately, common hydrogen fuel production relies on burning fossil fuels to capture the hydrogen and store it effectively. This makes it an unclean and expensive process that will require new methods of electrolysis and storage to be commercially economical. This is also where harvesting hydrogen from wastewater can make a big difference.

Wastewater treatment can result in hydrogen production, killing two birds with one stone. 

The water treatment process consists of treating wastewater with a variety of chemicals and filtering the solution through closed systems. This involves more than just the ion exchange process of typical water softening. While hard minerals are often removed during the wastewater treatment process, there is plentiful potential to harvest molecules like hydrogen out of this water to produce both clean water and hydrogen fuel.

Water conservation efforts in general are already saving millions of gallons of water in cities around the world. The power of coupling this process with hydrogen production creates alternative energy sources through two substances we have in abundance: hydrogen and human waste.

A variety of innovative techniques are making clean hydrogen production possible through wastewater treatment. This can make for meaningful impacts on global sustainability efforts. 

Hazer Group, for example, is experimenting with a thermocatalytic process of splitting natural gas through methane decomposition and an iron ore catalyst. The products will then be used as a feedstock source for producing both hydrogen and graphite through a low-emission process. The result could be commercially viable, economically sensible hydrogen fuel.

Alternatively, a research team at Princeton University is exploring a process of splitting water with the help of sunlight to better isolate hydrogen. Bacteria in the isolation chamber helps generate electrical current and consume the organic matter in wastewater. Sunlight catalyzes this process. This photocatalytic system is also modular, meaning it can easily scale via stackable chambers to process indefinite amounts of wastewater and produce great amounts of hydrogen. Continued success with the project could mean an energy-neutral system of hydrogen production, and a cleaner future for us all. 

Hydrogen fuel could sustain a cleaner world. 

The chemical industry is the biggest producer and consumer of hydrogen. Producing chemicals, in fact, requires more energy resources than other vital materials like metals and even food, according to a 2016 report from the U.S.Energy Information Administration. With clean and effective systems of harvesting hydrogen, the world can substantially reduce its fossil fuel demand and its subsequent carbon emissions.

In the meantime, other researchers are experimenting with ways to generate hydrogen cleanly from seawater. According to a report from PHYS.org, scientists have even successfully harvested hydrogen out of plastic waste, recovering as much as 97% of the hydrogen in the plastic in a brief process lasting only 30-90 seconds. All of these explorations have massive potential in creating clean and even recyclable plastic products. 

While the future looks green with clean hydrogen production systems, the importance of water conservation cannot be overstated. On average, Americans use 60 gallons of water per day per person. Simple steps like shortening your showers can help conserve this precious resource. 

As we wait for clean hydrogen solutions through wastewater treatment to become more mainstream, do your part to support sustainability efforts and alternative energy sources. A cleaner world will follow.