Hydrogen fuel cells could be a practical reality thanks to a new way of producing the gas.

Signa, based in New York, says it has devised a way to mix sodium with silica gel or crystalline silicon to create a powder that strips electrons from the sodium molecules and stores them – with more than nine per cent of a kilogram of the powder being converted to hydrogen.

Previously, industrial companies have shied away from using sodium which bursts into sparks when dunked in water, generating hydrogen, but with this new way, when water is introduced, a chemical reaction proceeds calmly.

The harvested hydrogen molecules undergo a second reaction with electrons stripped from the molecules and getting channelled into electrical power.

Signa says this technology could be incorporated into fuel cells that can generate enough electricity to run a mobile phone for a week or a car in emergency situations. They also say their techniques can reduce cost and complexity for pharmaceutical manufacturers and petroleum refiners.

The new technique was discovered by Michael Lefenfeld and James Dye who were trying to come up with an aerosol substitute for spraying fragrances.

Mr Lefenfeld said about the sodium: \\$quot;You toss it into water and it just bubbles. It frees up the electron to make it readily available for the reaction. A lot of that heat - in a normal sodium-water reaction - comes from the stripping away of that electron.\\$quot;

Hydrogen is already being used to a limited amount for power - Panasonic has started to conduct trials with hydrogen home-heating systems in Japan and Honda has obtained certification for a hydrogen car there.

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SiGNa Chemistry