SCIENTISTS have taken a major step forward in the production of hydrogen as a renewable energy source, a move that could provide a major breakthrough in the generation of power from clean sources.

Glasgow University chemists report in a paper published today that they have developed a new form of hydrogen production that is 30 times faster than the current state-of-the-art method.

It is also substantially cheaper because it does not involve fossil fuels and is effectively free once set-up costs have been paid. Unlike fossil fuels there would be a limitless supply as long as water was available, the experts said.

The new process solves common problems associated with generating electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind or wave energy, as well as difficulties around its storage and safety.

Professor Lee Cronin, who led the university's research team, said: "Around 95 per cent of the world's hydrogen supply is currently obtained from fossil fuels, a finite resource which we know harms the environment and speeds climate change.

"Some of this hydrogen is used to make ammonia fertilizer and as such, fossil hydrogen helps feed more than half of the world's population.

"The potential for reliable hydrogen production from renewable sources is huge. The sun, for example, provides more energy in a single hour of sunlight than the entire world's population uses in a year. If we can tap and store even a fraction of that in the coming years and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, it will be a tremendously important step to slowing climate change."

Hydrogen is easily produced from water by electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to break the bonds between the atoms that make up water molecules, hydrogen and oxygen, and releases them as gas.

Hydrogen gas can be burned to produce power with no negative impact on the environment because the only by-product is water vapour - unlike fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases when they burn.

However, current industrial production of hydrogen relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to power the electrolysis process, cancelling out some of the environmental benefit.

The most advanced method of generating hydrogen using renewable power at present uses a method known as proton exchange membrane electrolysis (PEME). To reach optimum efficiency, PEME requires precious metal catalysts to be held in high-pressure containers and subjected to high densities of electric current, which can be difficult to reliably achieve from fluctuating renewable sources.

The new method allows larger-than-ever quantities of hydrogen to be produced using lower power loads, typical of those generated by renewable power sources. It also solves safety issues that have so far limited the use of renewable energy for hydrogen production.

Mr Cronin added: "We've been able to create a system where hydrogen can be produced in a separate chamber without any additional energy input after the electrolysis of water takes place.

"The link between the rate of water oxidation and hydrogen production has been overcome, allowing hydrogen to be released from the water 30 times faster than the leading PEME process."

One of the problems of generating electricity via renewable power is that the output either needs to be used immediately or stored. Using renewable power to produce hydrogen allows the capture of electricity in an environmentally friendly state that is easily stored and distributed.

The research, produced as part of the University of Glasgow Solar Fuels Group, is published in Science today.

l The company planning the world's largest tidal stream energy project has signed a 25-year seabed lease with The Crown Estate, the largest to be awarded by the body.

The MeyGen tidal energy project, which is owned by Atlantis Resources, is to be located in the Inner Sound, between the Caithness coast and the island of Stroma. It will resemble a wind farm but on the seabed, where the tides will drive the turbines.

The first phase of the project will see four turbines installed in the next two years.