Scientists just found a new way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen that's cheap and effective - and it could mean we're able to produce an abundance of clean hydrogen fuel in the future.

Hydrogen is a fantastic source for clean energy, but the challenge is making enough of it to be efficient and practical price. A newly developed catalyst now reportedly addresses both issues, boasting more efficiency for a lower cost than existing solutions - and it can run for 20 hours straight.

According to the University of Houston scientists who developed the catalyst, it ticks all the boxes in terms of durability and energy storage, as well as cost and efficiency.

"Hydrogen is the cleanest primary energy source we have on Earth," says one of the team, Paul C. W. Chu. "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."

To split water into hydrogen and oxygen, two reactions are needed - one for each element. The main issue has been getting an efficient catalyst for the oxygen part of the equation, which is what these researchers say they've now cracked.

The catalyst is made up of a ferrous metaphosphate and a conductive nickel foam platform, a combination of materials the team says is more efficient and less expensive than existing solutions.

It also shows impressive durability in tests, operating for more than 20 hours and 10,000 cycles without a hitch.

Using the new method means hydrogen can be produced without creating waste carbon. That's something that existing production methods, like steam methane reforming and coal gasification, can't avoid.

And until now, oxygen reactions have often relied on electrocatalysts that use iridium, platinum, or ruthenium - 'noble' metals that are difficult and expensive to source. Experts say oxygen reactions have become a bottleneck to the whole process.

Nickel, in contrast, is more abundant and so easier and cheaper to get. The metal forms the basis of another water-splitting method discovered last year, so scientists now have several avenues to explore for improving hydrogen production.

The actual splitting itself is usually powered by an electric current or solar power, but because water only captures a small portion of the light spectrum, it's more productive to convert sunshine into energy first, then use the electricity to release hydrogen.

If scientists can crack the formula, hydrogen could eventually power everything from homes to cars. And it's a far better option for the environment than CO2-gushing fossil fuels - hydrogen fuel produces water as a by-product of combustion, which is both sustainable and non-polluting.

And the good news is, should the water electrolysis route not work out, researchers are also exploring ways to get hydrogen from biomass.

The less heat and the less energy we use preparing the hydrogen in the first place, the better it is for our planet - and once we have it ready, it's far cleaner and greener than fossil fuels.

"We believe our finding is a giant step toward practical and economic production of hydrogen by water splitting, which will significantly contribute to the effort to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels," say the Houston researchers.

Their findings have been published in PNAS.