New Material Efficiently Generates Hydrogen from Water

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The use of hydrogen as a fuel and energy storage medium as interested scientists for decades, but physics isn’t on our side. Generating hydrogen from water requires a lot of power and expensive materials, but researchers from Washington State University may have developed a method that could make it a viable way to store energy cheaply and efficiently.

Many of the technologies we look toward as part of a renewable energy economy are less consistent than traditional means. For example, solar power produces a lot of energy during the day and none at night. It’s the same story with wind power — it might provide more power than needed when it’s gusty out, but none on a calm day. You need some way to store excess energy for later use, and battery technology comes with its own complications. If you can generate hydrogen, it’s an extremely efficient way to store energy. Just pump it into a fuel cell, and you get water and energy. In addition to industrial storage, some vehicles could also be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The issue with using hydrogen is that you need a lot of power to split a water molecule (the most common source of hydrogen atoms), and the catalysts needed are expensive. Most methods use either platinum or ruthenium, and they must be replaced frequently as they degrade. As described in a newly published study, the Washington State team used cheap and plentiful nickel and iron to make a water-splitting catalyst.

The team calls its material a “porous nanofoam.” It’s a bit like a metallic sponge with microscopic holes and tunnels that give it a very large total surface area. That’s key to its ability to catalyze the formation of hydrogen and oxygen from water. In testing, the team found this material was even more effective in generating hydrogen than the more expensive catalysts made from precious metal. As for stability, the team reports it showed no drop in functionality after a 12-hour run time.

Most elements of this process are the same we currently use to generate hydrogen, so it’s conceivable the nanofoam could be substituted for other catalysts at industrial scale with few changes. However, the Washington State University study only tested the material in a laboratory setting. More research is needed to see how the nanofoam catalyst might work at industrial scale. Until then, don’t toss your lithium-ion batteries in the trash.

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