Hydrogen sulfide gas produces the characteristic smell of rotten eggs, sewers, stockyards, and landfills. The petroleum industry produces thousands of tons of the stuff each year as a byproduct of the processes that remove sulfur from petroleum, natural gas, coal, and other products. The industry faces substantial fines for emitting hydrogen sulfide, but remediation is expensive.
Researchers at Rice University have developed a method for turning hydrogen sulfide into hydrogen gas and sulfur in a single step. Called plasmonic photocatalysis, it not only gets rid of an undesirable substance, it does so by producing valuable byproducts.
The established way of getting rid of hydrogen sulfide is called the Claus process. It requires multiple steps, including some that require combustion chambers heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The end product is sulfur and water.
The Rice University process gets all of its energy from light. A surface of grains of silicon dioxide is dotted with tiny gold nanoparticles. These particles interact strongly with a specific wavelength of visible light and cause plasmonic reactions that create short-lived, high-energy electrons that drive the catalysis of hydrogen sulfide. Given that the process requires only visible light and no external heating, it should be relatively straightforward to scale up using solar energy or very efficient LED lamps.
The new hydrogen sulfide remediation technology has been licensed by a Houston-based startup company with more than 60 employees whose founders include some of the Rice researchers. The process may end up being efficient enough and cheap enough for cleaning up non-industrial sources of hydrogen sulfide such as sewers and animal waste.
Photo, posted July 8, 2021, courtesy of Doug Letterman via Flickr.