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Air pollution caused by burning rubbish much higher than previously thought, research finds

The amount of air pollution caused by the unregulated burning of rubbish is a lot higher than previously suggested, researchers have said.

The researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research said that 1.1 billion tons, which equals about 41%, of the total waste generated worldwide is disposed of through unregulated burning – each year.

The work showed that in China 22% of the larger type of air pollution particles came from burning garbage.

Air pollution is monitored on two difference scales, which relate to the diameter of particles in the air.

Fine particles are produced by all types of combustion including the use of cars, power plants, wood burning and some industrial processes.

Coarse dust particles are created from crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred by vehicles travelling on roads.

They identified China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, and Turkey, as the countries that generated the most emissions from burning trash.

The researchers put most of this down to the rapid expansion of developing countries, whether there are also fewer trans disposal facilities landfills and incinerators.

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The researchers found that as much as 29% percent of global emissions of small particulates created come from fires.

This is as well as 10% or mercury and 40% of a group of gases known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These have all been said to have dangerous health impacts.

“Air pollution across much of the globe is significantly underestimated because no one is tracking open-fire burning of trash,” said scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, lead author of the new study.

“The uncontrolled burning of trash is a major source of pollutants, and it’s one that should receive more attention.”

Estimated annual emissions of carbon monoxide (CO, Gg yr−1) from the open combustion of waste at residences and dumps.

Estimated annual emissions of carbon monoxide (CO, Gg yr−1) from the open combustion of waste at residences and dumps.

However Wiedinmyer said that the actual emissions could be higher or lower than the team’s estimates by a factor of two.

This is partly because it is incredibly difficult to measure and is unregulated.

She said: “This study was a first step to put some bounds on the magnitude of this issue.

“The next step is to look at what happens when these pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere—where are they being transported and which populations are being most affected.”


Image two courtesy of NCAR


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In Pictures: Living every day as an astronaut

It may not be the most practical way of dressing but this is what it is like to live every day as an astronaut.

When we do eventually colonise parts of space what we wear will have changed incredibly but these photos show what challenges our clothing may need to adapt to.

Photographer Tim Dodd purchased the Russian space suit in an online auction in November 2013 and since then he’s been photographing it being used in situations that we encounter on a regular basis.

From daily routines of teeth brushing to a night out clubbing, the suit has been experiencing scenarios that its designers would never have envisioned.

He was, unsurprisingly, the only bidder on the suit and says he has always been a lover of space.

Here we see some of his best photographs of the suit in use and find out what made him buy the suit. More of his work can be found on his Instagram account

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What made you decide to bid on the space suit in the first place?

It was the only item not being bid on that I thought would be fun. It was a little impulsive, but I knew I could have some fun with it!


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Why did you decide to take the “everyday” angle with the images?

I was in a sense trying to project my inner childhood love for space. I wanted the character do what little kids do when they think they’re a super hero, they don’t take the costume off and everything revolves around it.

I just thought it’d be a fun way to express my love for space in a fun way.


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You mentioned you had a childhood love of space – what is it about space that appeals to you?

I think seeing how much has come from the space industry. How much it inspires us all. How important it is to continue to invest in it because someday our technology will save us from either ourselves (getting off the planet) or from a collision event.

I think about how such a small investment in our money in the 60′s STILL empowers and inspires people 45 years later.


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Has the space program met your childhood expectations?

Lately, no. We’ve seen massive budget cuts in NASA funding since the shuttle era ended. I want to see those numbers go way back up. I’m glad the private industry is doing some interesting things, but they have a way to go.

I’m very excited about the initiative Space-X is taking, but I sure hope they can deliver on their promises. It will be amazing to see re-usable spacecraft in the next decade.


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Where do you hope we are with space technology in 10, 20 years time?

Re-usable and affordable space travel. I hope that in the next 20 years, I can afford to take a trip into space (even if it’s really expensive) like people can buy first class plane tickets.


All images courtesy of Tim Dodd


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Journey between the stars: The recipe to make Interstellar travel a reality

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As scientists from Project Icarus work on ideas to make interstellar travel a reality Paul French asks: how on Earth are they going to do it?

In 1973 the British Interplanetary Society launched Project Daedalus, aiming to establish whether interstellar travel might be possible. Five years later, the project team concluded that it would be feasible, by using current or credible extrapolations of existing technology, to launch an interstellar probe that could reach another solar system on timescales of a normal human lifetime.

Now the society, in collaboration with the US non-profit Icarus Interstellar, is reaching the end of another project, known as Icarus, which has sought to build on the work of Daedalus and bring interstellar travel closer to reality.

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Travelling across light years

The main challenge facing the Icarus team is obvious: with the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, more than four light years away, how can you build something that will get there within the life span of the people involved in the project?

“One of the biggest challenges is creating the energy required,” says Icarus project leader Rob Swinney. “The nearest star is four light years away. If you could travel at the speed of light it would take four years to get there, but to even go at even a fraction of that speed takes a phenomenal amount of energy.

“Chemical rocket powered engines don’t cut it so the Project Icarus team has been looking into designing an unmanned probe that would use fusion technology. That would allow us to go at ten percent of the speed of light, which would mean we could get to the Alpha Centauri in 44 years. Fusion reactors don’t exist yet but the science is well understood and the engineering solution is probably only decades away.”

Project Icarus was launched by the British Interplanetary Society in 2009 in conjunction with the Tau Zero Foundation. For the first couple of years, the conglomeration of over 30 scientists and engineers investigated the problems associated with interstellar travel.

“Since then we’ve been working on creating a credible design for an unmanned craft that can overcome those problems,” explains Swinney. “At the moment we have four different possible designs and two possible engine types. We’re currently trying to narrow it down to one design.”


“One of the biggest challenges is creating the energy required”


The need for speed

Back in the 1970s the Project Daedalus team identified inertial confined fusion (ICF) as the best way of propelling their probe quickly enough to negate the issues of time and distance to the nearest star. The Icarus team has sought to build on and refine this approach.

“The Daedalus ICF design basically involves using an electron beam to hit a pellet of fuel and a magnetic field to draw it out of the exhaust,” Swinney explains. “The Daedalus team discarded lasers because the technology wasn’t that advanced then, but it has come on in leaps and bounds since. That’s why we’ve decided to base our designs around laser ignition. So you’d put fuel pellets into the reaction chamber, hit them with a laser and use superconductors to create a strong magnetic field to force the plasma out of the exhaust. Some of the energy is then captured to ‘bootstrap’ the next cycle.”

The other potential engine design the researchers are looking into uses a Z-pinch concept. Swinney explains: When a lightning rod on a building is hit by a lightning strike and a large current is discharged, you’d expect it to be smashed. However, the huge current creates a magnetic field around the rod that creates an inward force so strong it actually crushes the rod. We’re looking into whether we could use that force to squeeze a plasma stream enough to fuse the fuel rather than the pellets and laser.”

Payload problems

On a project as complex as Icarus it is almost inevitable that as one door opens, another closes. Managing to solve the issue of creating enough energy to send the probe interstellar at a reasonable speed creates a range of other headaches.

“Another major problem is the mass of the probe,” says Swinney. “The Daedalus probe had an all up mass of over 54,000 tonnes with a payload of 450 tonnes and we want to make Icarus smaller but if anything it is likely to be bigger with a smaller payload.

“A reason for this is that Daedalus was a fly-through probe. Our intention is to decelerate Icarus into orbit around the target star, which requires even more fuel and adds even more mass onto the probe.”

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Handling the heat

For engines to work effectively they must create an enormous amount of heat. This is a hard enough problem to solve for conventional spacecraft, says Swinney, let alone one creating enough energy to fly interstellar missions.

“Heat is hard to get rid of in the vacuum of space but you need to do it if you don’t want to fry your equipment,” he explains. “Most spacecraft currently use radiators to radiate energy into space but that would be harder for us if we’re using fusion reactors because they’ll generate even more heat. Adding in more radiators to deal with this could add significant weight to the probe.

“One theory we’re exploring to overcome this is to use liquid droplet radiation. Essentially we’d pump liquid drops into space, collect them once they’ve cooled and re-use them as part of the cooling process.”


“Heat is hard to get rid of in the vacuum of space”


Shields up

There are lots of tiny dust particles far out in space. As high-speed collisions could potentially prove fatal, shielding is an important aspect of any interstellar probe design.

“If you were to hit dust particles whilst travelling at ten percent of the speed of light, they could easily destroy your machine,” says Swinney. “Project Daedalus looked into the idea of firing particles out the front of the probe that could vaporise the dust. However, they also designed a shield to go on the front of their probe and we concluded that it would be enough to protect it, so will incorporate that into our design.”

Navigating deep space

Navigation is surprisingly simple for solar system missions. NASA has a deep space network that allows spacecraft to know how far from Earth they are, and also uses star sensors for attitude control. However, all that will go out the widow once you exit the solar system.

“Navigation will be different,” says Swinney. “The nearest star is beyond the deep space network and it will be harder to navigate because the local stars that appeared fixed before will move. However, with some clever algorithms we think we’ll be able to take this into account and build a system that can find its way around.”

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Signal lost

If you’ve ever complained about a mobile phone signal in a remote part of the world, spare a thought for a probe designed to go interstellar. At four lights years from Earth, how do you hope to beam a signal back?

“Transmission rates get slower and slower for probes in the outer solar system,” says Swinney. “The problem for us is once you get out to the nearest star, how do you transmit back to Earth?”One idea we’re looking at is gravitational lensing. Basically, you can use a heavy object to bend light and see things further away.

“The sun has its own gravitational lensing point. We think we may be able to use it to magnify a transmitter and boost it back to the deep space network. That could be one of the first precursor missions – to send a probe out to the sun’s gravitational bending point and see if it works.”


“Transmission rates get slower and slower for probes in the outer solar system”


Looking to the future

Project Icarus has inspired further study into interstellar travel. Icarus Interstellar is a non-profit organisation launched in the US to help manage Project Icarus and other related projects and in 2012, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the 100 Year Star Ship project with the intention of making the capability for human interstellar flight a reality within 100 years.

“There’s now a community across the world looking into this,” says Swinney. “I suspect that there will be half a dozen or so problems that will drop out of Icarus. We’d then hope to influence people with money like the national agencies into investing in some precursor missions that could help to solve those problems.”

Fusion technology is decades away, but sending a probe could happen sooner than we think. The Japanese Space Agency, for instance, is currently flying a probe around the solar system using solar sails, which are covered in reflective material and use the sun’s light for propulsion.

“The problem with fusion is the amount of fuel,” Swinney explains. “Solar sails could take away that problem but the force they produce is tiny so another thing we’re looking into is the possibility of a beam-driven sail. It might be possible for small payloads and that technology is much closer than fusion. If you could combine it with a nuclear-electric engine it might be possible to send a probe within the next ten years.”

So, will people one day be able to travel between the stars? “Personally, I think they will,” Swiney says. “We’re not that far away from living and working in the solar system. I think from there we’ll progress further out. We underestimate how much we can achieve. Just over a hundred years ago we were building planes out of old bicycle parts but 60 years later we put a man on the moon.”


Images courtesy of Icarus Interstellar by Nick Stevens/Robert van der Veeke/Adrian Mann


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In Pictures: This Week’s Most Futuristic Designs

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Oscillating Platforms

A proposal for the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative competition, this concept combines snazzy aesthetics with energy generation. Designed as a floating installation, the sails would be used to harvest wind energy while the platform itself would generate tidal energy, resulting in an art piece that could actually offset the energy needs of more than 1,500 people.


Via InHabitat.


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Queen B (Bioshielding) 2 Bedroom 2 Bath Mars Apartment

The winner of NASA’s collaborative competition with 3D printing heavyweights Makerbot, this is a proposed design for a human home on Mars. Designed by Noah Hornberger, the apartment is intended to shield its occupants from radiation using depleted uranium-cladded walls, while hot water would be created using an underground exothermic reactor.


Via Thingiverse.


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Origami Solar Panels

The result of a joint project between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Brigham Young University, these solar panels resolve the head-scratching challenge of how to transport large solar panels into space. Although the example version is not that large, the scientists plan to create a version that can unfold to 82ft (25m) wide from only 8.9ft (2.7m) when folded.


Via Engadget.


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LED Observation Tower

Designed for the riverside district of Chinese city Shenzen, this design by RMJM is intended as a symbol to mark the intersection of two rivers. With a facade of aluminium backlit by LED lights, the 100m tower is topped by a viewing area offering panoramic views of the surrounding region.


Via designboom.


Omote Projected Virtual Makeup

We are breaking our pictures rule by including this, but such a remarkable project has to be seen. Using a projection mapping system that can identify the dots on the model’s face, Omote precisely projects an array of makeup styles to transform her before our eyes. Make sure you watch to the end to see some outrageous transformations.


Via Geek.


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Round-up: The technology you missed this week

3D printed organs getting closer

The ability to create 3D printed organs has come a lot closer to reality thanks to scientists who have made a major breakthrough in printing vascular network.

The breakthrough saw them, for the first time, print capillaries which means that 3D printed cells can sustain themselves and survive.

Source: The Guardian


Favourites in sight

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Much to the outrage of Twitter users the ‘favourited’ tweets of those they follow are now appearing in their timelines. 

The change by the social media giant reduces the point of having both Favourites and Re-Tweets if both are going to be displayed at the same time. 

Source: City AM


Image courtesy of Twin Design / Shutterstock.com


What a difference two years makes

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NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been on Mars for two years and that times has taken its toll on the vehicle.

These before and after shots show how the conditions on the surface of the red planet have weathered the robot.

Source: The Verge


Image courtesy of NASA


Reversible USB for the iPhone 6

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The iPhone 6, when it is finally released, may have a cable that can be used either way round.

This would save, literally, seconds each time the phone needed charging.

Source: Mashable


Firing fish

Flying fish are becoming more common in California as researchers are firing them through a vacuum. 

The fish, which can now travel at speeds of up to 22mph, are being put through a vacuum to help them get over dams which have been built in their natural path.

Source: Fast Commpany


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Space and the law: How decades-old policy is shaping exploration and commercialisation

Space law is an immensely detailed and varied field, which goes right back to the dawn of humanity’s steps into space. However, with commercialisation and the prospect of resource mining on the horizon, how will this law shape the future of space exploration?

We spoke to Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, an expert in international space law and director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, to learn more about the field and how it affects the development of space exploration.

Why do we need laws governing space?

Where you have a lot of different interests and assets in an environment that can be used by all, you really do need at least a framework that will ensure that it is well-used and is available to everybody else.

What are the main areas that space law covers?

It covers any activity in outer space. Telecoms is regulated in a very specific way, but one of the underlying fundamental principles of space law is that nobody can appropriate any part of it, but you can attach rules that, for example with satellite communications you can say yes you can use these frequencies and this orbital position, it’s not giving you a right to the orbital position but it’s giving you a right to transmit in those frequencies if you’re over there.

And there are other aspects of this fundamental principle of non-appropriation, which are coming under some strain in some areas, particularly because there is, at the moment, an interest in extracting resources from space. It’s a big question – if you do, it there a legal regime that gives you property rights in it.

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Given the ‘no appropriation’ rule of space law, how do you see asteroid mining developing?

As it all stands at the moment, it’s stretching the argument to say that you can own resources in outer space and extract them and use them for commercial gain.

There are a number of arguments put forward. One of them is that outer space treaties only address the behaviour of states, so therefore private entities are not prevented from doing things that are outside that regime. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the regime is and when states can’t extend their sovereignty or jurisdiction to outer space.

Property rights are a combination of possession and control, but also of legal recognition. If you can’t have a legal structure that recognises it, you can’t own it. And the other aspect of it is that where are you going to have it recognised?

The Outer Space Treaty, which is in fact adhered to by most countries whether they are space-faring or not, says that any activities by your nationals are the responsibility of the state. So in a way if you go out there it’s your state that is regarded as being responsible for it.

The principle says that the state can’t own it, so they can’t give ownership to you. But as I say, there are many arguments that people put forward, and there is much debate as you can imagine.

If technology progressed and access to space increased, do you think people would seek to change those laws so ownership could be claimed?

There is the structure for doing that, and the Moon Agreement, which is one of the five space treaties, provides for creating a regime if and when it becomes possible to exploit outer space. And it’s very much like the sea authority, which really monitors and, if you like, has put in place a regime for distributing the benefits of exploiting the oceans.

So that regime is there, it’s not a developed regime but the Moon Agreement says that if and when it becomes possible then you have to establish a regime that will have these basic requirements within it.

But the Moon Agreement is not being ratified by many states. It’s only got 15 ratifications and the major space-faring nations have not ratified it. The reason for that is moderately complex, but one of the objections to it is that is requires opening your facilities that you establish in outer space to inspection by anybody else.

So you can build a base on the moon, you own that bit of the moon and if anybody wants to look at it you have to let them.

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Is there any established criminal law for space?

No there is not, but what there is within the Outer Space Treaty – that’s the main treaty of principles of 1967. There is the provision that each state can extend its jurisdiction and control to its own space objects, so if you were to build the base and facilities, and you have to do that unless we happen to discover somewhere which is very much like the Earth, even then you’d have to have structures within which you carry out these activities.

So whoever then owns that – in inverted commas – whichever nation state it belongs to, that state can then extend its criminal law, any part of its laws, or create new laws to govern activity in those places.

For example, on the Space Station, which is actually made up of different components, different units that are contributed by different countries. You can be in the Japanese bit, you can be in the Canadian bit, you can be in the American bit, and each of those can extend their laws to it and have done.

Indeed, for example, the United States has provisions in its intellectual property laws that extend their application to US space objects.

Potential future technological advancements seem to have largely already been considered within space law already – is that the case?

I would feel extremely adventurous if I said we had considered everything! We haven’t.

Insofar as current activities are concerned, certainly, we’re fairly well served. With future activities one of the amazing things about the Space Treaty, which as I say is the main treaty governing activities in outer space, is it sets principles and I think those principles could serve us very well.

I think where the departure comes is looking at commercial interests that essentially are exclusionary and a regime that is inclusive.

The outer space principle is that everybody and anybody who wants to should be able to explore outer space and conduct activities there. And obviously if you want to mine for precious metals and have exclusive rights to it, then it doesn’t fit in that well with that regime.

But as I say, it’s been foreseen, and it works reasonably well with deep sea resources and a similar regime could be set up. The Moon Agreement deals with that – although it’s called the Moon Agreement it actually applies to any celestial body, it’s not just the Moon.

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Would the establishment of a colony in space lead to changes in space law?

Yes I think there would be, I’m not sure that in the majority of cases you need a different international regime. You will see much more engagement with space activities in national laws.

As I say, for example, copyright patent laws etc will then say ‘oh yes, if you do it in space these rules apply to you’ as if you’d done it on Earth, or there may be different ones. The current position with the US is indeed that it’s as if you’d done it in the United States.

There is the intergovernmental agreement which sets up the International Space Station and that has many provisions that deal with what laws apply to what activities and whose laws apply to which activities.

Is space law growing as a field?

It certainly is growing in the sense that there are aspects of it that need to be better defined and better understood.

For example, the whole regime for dealing with orbital debris is something that has been developing and improving over the last few years and we have now a set of guidelines that pretty much everybody adheres to now, such as allowing or making sure that if you put a satellite up when it comes to the end of its life you can de-orbit it or put it in a graveyard orbit. Pretty much everybody now imposes that as a condition of being licensed to do it.

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Are there legal decisions about space that were made in the past that people are now seeking to change?

I would say that there are – the Moon Agreement, for example, people do think that that could have been done differently. But the interesting thing about the Moon Agreement is that it was negotiated and fully participated in by all of these countries that haven’t ratified it – the US was very active in negotiating and agreeing the terms of what then became the Moon Agreement, but it’s not seeing its interests as being well-served by it.

And a lot of that is also to do with how your own policies develop and what it is that you want to promote. The US was very early, earlier than anyone else, to look at commercialising space. And there are, as I’m sure you’re aware, the huge commercial interests that drive US laws and policies.

We’ve had quite a big influx of private companies coming into the field recently; do you anticipate that impacting on space law?

It will to an extent, but a lot of it will in the area of guidelines and policies rather than changing the underlying principles that are there.

My own personal view is that the Outer Space Treaty happened at the perfect time, when the US and the USSR both wanted to do very similar things and both didn’t want the other to do it alone.

So we have a pretty good balance there, and of course it had to take account of others coming into the field and other countries’ interests. If we did it today, I’m not sure we’d get there, or end up with anything quite as good.

Do you think humanity in the future will be grateful for the fact we did go that way with it? 

I’d like to think so. But that’s a huge ethical and political issue. I just happen to think that in very many ways we’re going in the wrong direction.

The US Supreme Court has even held that corporations can have religious beliefs, you know, and freedom of speech and money of speech – that is just so removed from what I think were the driving forces in these things. But as I say, those are in some ways political considerations.

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Splitting hydrogen: AAA batteries may change future of collecting and using energy

It is possible to split water into hydrogen and water using a splitter that works on a battery bought from almost any shop.

The process, which emits no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gasses, is able to break down the liquid using a standard AAA battery.

It works by the battery sending an electronic current through two electrodes that split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Developed by researchers at Stanford University, the technology could mean huge changes to how we collect and store energy.

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It may give us easier access to hydrogen and could potentially be used across a wide range of different industries, said Hongjie Dai who worked on the project.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles, buildings and storing renewable energy on the grid,” said Dai.

“We’re very glad that we were able to make a catalyst that’s very active and low cost.

“This shows that through nanoscale engineering of materials we can really make a difference in how we make fuels and consume energy.”

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Toyota is due to start selling hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars next year, however most of the hydrogen will be coming from large industrial plants that produce the gas using hot steam and natural gas.

The new process could, if it is scaled up, be used to split hydrogen in a much cheaper way than has previously been used.

Perhaps the technology could even be embedded into cars, enabling drivers to fuel up using water.

Dai said: “Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery.

“This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.

“It’s been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability.

“When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise.”


Image two courtesy of 360b / Shutterstock.com.


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Inspiring innovation