Mention Houston energy, and people think oil and gas. But even oil and gas companies have begun to plan for a post-carbon world, investing in biofuels, wind and solar.

Another tantalizing possibility? Hydrogen, the most abundant element on earth, found in most living things. But hydrogen is usually produced from coal or natural gas, creating carbon pollution. The favored “green” method—splitting water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen—is pollution-free but energy intensive and, therefore, expensive.

Catalysts like platinum can speed up the reaction, saving energy, but they’re expensive, too.

No wonder electric cars are storming the market while hydrogen fuel cell cars are mostly a curiosity.

But a discovery reported by UH physicists last spring would remove one of the last remaining hurdles in using water to produce hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the cleanest primary energy source on earth, says Paul Chu, founding director and chief scientist at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. “Water could be the most abundant source of hydrogen if one could separate the hydrogen from its strong bond with oxygen in the water by using a catalyst.”

In addition to hydrogen fuel cell cars, hydrogen could be used to produce electricity. And unlike solar power, wind power and other “clean” energy, hydrogen can be easily stored.

Chu and colleagues, including physicists Zhifeng Ren and Shuo Chen, both of whom also are principal investigators with the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, created a catalyst made of ferrous metaphosphate grown on a commercially available nickel foam— cheaper and more efficient than conventional catalysts. It is more durable, too, operating more than 20 hours and 10,000 cycles in testing, compared with just a few hours for many catalysts.

“Cost-wise, it is much lower, and performance-wise, much better,” said Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Physics.

The research is continuing, but ultimately, the researchers hope to launch a start-up company to produce hydrogen with the new technology.

Other researchers involved in the project include postdoctoral researchers Haiqing Zhou and Fang Yu, and graduate students Jingying Sun and Ran He.