It sounds like a strange combination: zinc oxide crystals, water, and noise pollution. But scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered that the mix can efficiently produce hydrogen without the need for a dirty catalyst like oil. By submerging a new type of zinc oxide crystal in water, the scientists claim to be able to harvest hydrogen using vibrations from passing traffic and crashing waves.

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To generate the clean hydrogen, researchers produced zinc oxide crystals that absorb vibrations when placed in water. The vibrations cause the crystals to develop areas with strong positive and negative charges–a reaction that rips the surrounding water molecules and releases hydrogen and oxygen.

The mechanism, dubbed the piezoelectrochemical effect, converts 18% of energy from vibrations into hydrogen gas (compared to 10% from conventional piezoelectric materials). And since any vibration can produce the effect, the system could one day be used to generate power from anything that produces noise — cars whizzing by on the highway, crashing waves in the ocean, or planes landing at an airport. That sounds like a good deal to us!

+ Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters

Via New Scientist

Lead photo by Oak Ridge National Laboratory