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Catalyst Gets Hydrogen Cars Moving

A radical process that allows hydrogen to be efficiently extracted from liquid formic acid could help to make the dream of hydrogen-powered cars an economic reality.

The use of formic acid to produce hydrogen has never been considered viable because it requires high temperatures to decompose and also produces waste by-products. However, scientists have designed a catalyst that forces formic acid to produce just hydrogen and carbon dioxide at only 70°C.

“One of the grand challenges for chemists today is to develop perfect chemical reactions that proceed with 100% yield and 100% selectivity without forming any waste products,” says Prof Richard O’Hair of The University of Melbourne.

“With formic acid, the aim was to transform it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which could really lend itself to the important practical applications of hydrogen energy in the transport sector.”

While the study, published in Nature Communications (, successfully produces hydrogen and CO2, the ultimate aim of future research will be to ensure that any derivative source of hydrogen produces zero emissions.

Using a suite of powerful gas-phase techniques, the research team designed a series of silver complexes and examined their reactions with formic acid. The team was able to identify and orchestrate the exact catalyst that would effectively manipulate a strict hydrogen/CO2-only production.

One of the major challenges as the world moves towards hydrogen power is the lack of refuelling infrastructure, but the researchers say this could easily be overcome if the industry uses liquid formic acid.

While the new catalyst design is an important step forward in addressing our hydrogen energy needs, O’Hair says there are still many barriers to overcome, such as the production of carbon dioxide and how it could potentially be recycled to regenerate formic acid.