At least half of the world’s usable hydrogen is obtained through a process known as steam reforming, in which steam reacts with fossil fuels such as natural gas to produce hydrogen gas. On a smaller scale, hydrogen can also be obtained through the process of electrolysis, in which ordinary water is split into its oxygen and hydrogen components by running an electrical current through it – consumers can even buy their own electrolysis-based home hydrogen extraction kit, in the form of the HYDROFILL. Now, however, Japan’s FUKAI Environmental Research Institute has announced a new technology for obtaining hydrogen that it claims is less expensive and more efficient than anything that’s been tried so far.

FUKAI’s process involves adding aluminum or magnesium to boiling “functional water,” a proprietary substance that can be produced simply by running regular tap water through a natural mineral-containing "functional water generation unit.” The bonds that join hydrogen and oxygen molecules in regular water, which ordinarily require some energy to break, are weakened in functional water.

The liquid yields 2 liters (122 cubic inches) of hydrogen gas per gram of aluminum, or 3.3 liters (201 cubic inches) per gram of magnesium. FUKAI claims that the cost of producing enough hydrogen to generate 1kWh of electricity is about 18 cents US. That cost could be lowered through the use of recycled aluminum.

The technology is said to not involve the expansive facilities, petroleum-based fuels, or CO2 output of steam reformation. It is also reportedly more energy-efficient than electrolysis, and doesn’t require the growing of crops necessary for experimental biomass-based systems.

“If we make the most of this technology, in the future it will be possible to run automobiles using water only – no need to use gasoline or electricity,” stated Toshiharu Fukai, the developer of the system. “We are also pushing forward with technology that will allow us to generate hydrogen with zero cost. If we succeed in this development, even ordinary households will be able to produce hydrogen.”

The technology will be publicly demonstrated at a press conference next Monday (Oct. 25, 2010) in New York City.