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David Moreno

”Do you know what rust does to a boat? Rust is boat cancer, Ross!”

This quote is from a third season episode of the legendary TV series FRIENDS, when Ross fails to bond with his girlfriend’s father. That hilarious scene is from 1996. Seventeen years later, rust still provokes the most negative of associations such as decay, neglect or ruin.

So what is rust exactly?

It’s formed by the reaction of iron and oxygen in the presence of water or moisture. Water molecules have the ability to enter the tiniest cracks in any metal. The oxygen slowly reacts with the iron, forming a brown crust while eventually destroying the metal. The consequences can be horrendous: winds have blown away rusty bridges; houses have collapsed as their rusty structures couldn’t support the weight.

Because of these damaging consequences, industries have constantly been developing anti-rust materials. But despite water-resistant paints or preventative coatings, rust still is hard to avoid.

Rust on bridges, boats and buildings is bad news for everyone. But what about our rusty bikes or our rusty garden equipment? Once they become brown, do we have to throw them away?

As it turns out, no, we don’t have to.

Science has discovered a new side to the nasty brown stuff.

There’s new hope for rust: it can help us “boost the efficiency of hydrogen production from sunlight”, according to this BBC article.

That’s right! Nano-sized rust particles could create hydrogen, a natural element heavily used in the chemical industry. The incredible thing about…

hydrogen: About 75% of our universe consists of this element, but barely 0,1% of our planet is built up of hydrogen.

Evidently, we can’t just pick up hydrogen from the Sun or from Saturn and bring it to Earth. For decades, humans have extracted hydrogen from our own fossil sources like methane, but these methods are far from being sustainable.

So, rust could become quite important in the future. You’re not convinced? Check out the video below in which scientists from Switzerland prove that the method works.

The problem, for now, is that this technology isn’t advanced enough to achieve a minimum level of efficiency.

It will take many years to use rust for our benefit. But eventually, this unloved material will be able to show its utility to the world.


David Moreno