Science

Inexpensive catalyst for producing hydrogen under real-world conditions found

Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)
Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)
View 1 Image
Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)
1/1
Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)

Hydrogen has been hailed as the fuel of the future, but producing it cleanly using platinum as a catalyst is simply too costly to service the world's energy needs. On the flipside, producing hydrogen with fossil fuels not only releases CO2 as a byproduct, but is unsustainable, negating hydrogen's green potential. However, hydrogen may yet make good on its promise thanks to a group of scientists at the University of Cambridge.

They found that cobalt can function as an efficient catalyst at room temperature in pH neutral water surrounded by oxygen. Compared to platinum, cobalt is relatively abundant and therefore inexpensive – a recipe that could make all the difference if we're going to complete a transition to alternative energy sources over the next 50 years.

"Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve H2 efficiently in water and under aerobic conditions," explains Dr. Erwin Reisner, head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at the University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry. "However, such conditions are essential for use in developing green hydrogen as a future energy source under industrially relevant conditions."

Currently, the researchers are developing a solar water splitting device that would yield just H2 and O2 – clean fuel and oxygen. "We are excited about our results and we are optimistic that we will successfully assemble a sunlight-driven water splitting system soon," writes Masaru Kato and Fezile Lakadamyali, co-authors of the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition in August 2012.

However, cobalt is not a magic bullet. "Many hurdles such as the rather poor stability of the catalyst remain to be addressed," cautions Dr. Reisner. "But our finding provides a first step to produce ‘green hydrogen’ under relevant conditions."

Other groups are working on the same problem, from transferring solar energy to hydrogen for storage to a group that says it has produced hydrogen from sunlight and ethanol. With any luck, future trips to the pump won't be for petrol.

Source: University of Cambridge

24 comments
Graham HomeMaintenance
hydrogen has been separated by using enzymes recently, was separated using palladium some time back and even I have documents outlining methods dating back into the 70's, storage has been resolved using a variety of products isn't it about time we get this happening.
Alex Angel
It's the inexpensive part that that's key - palladium & enzymes aren't cheap.
Slowburn
How many kilowatt hours of electricity must be put into the water to get a kilowatt worth of hydrogen out? Hydrogen is incompatible with the current infrastructure. The cost of building the hydrogen infrastructure is mindbogglingly. Even at room temperature hydrogen makes some metals brittle. Hydrogen is bulky for the energy contained and we can not build a tank that it will not migrate through. It must be stored at extremely high pressure or liquified at ultra cryogenic temperatures for useful storage.
Bruce Miller
My question: Why H2? Are there other fuels, combustibles that can be converted to rotating power by other means than internal combustion, or even here to for unrealized systems wee should be seeking? Can Extreme High Voltages effect chemical changes that can yield electric current upon reversing? At high voltages and light weights?Did we lose much when Tesla was bypassed? Will the massive, on a scale of X 100, Asian intelligentsia reach into these regions, make discoveries before the western world can? Static still grossly under-explored? Americans seeking liquid fuels or Gaseous fuels in an electric bullet train, Thorium fissioning 21st century?
Arahant
Hydrogen can be stored in metal hydrides usefully which can be built into a tank, there is a hydrogen fuel system that was developed that used this as the fuel tank in a car, it requires some heat to get the hydrogen back out but its nothing to complicated. Hydrogen is such a good fuel source because it can be made from water, and when it burns its non polluting and will form back into water in the exhaust. Not saying that its the best fuel or if this breakthrough will change things and make hydrogen more availible, likely not, but its still really important as one more step in the right direction. It could be helpful for specific situations and niche areas where because of this it will be a cheaper source of energy then typical energy sources(ie remote settlements, or running specialized equipment). Im glad people are still researching all avenues.
MasterG
HYDROGEN is the key fuel for space travel. i think we are not thinking big enuff, we havent yet determined if this is a box let alone trying to think outside of it. there is mountains of research on splitting water but we are still thinking inside the box though.
Slowburn
re; Arahant Hydrogen particularly from water is not an energy source it is an energy carrier the energy source is the power supply that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen. I would need some proof that hydrogen does not migrate out of the metal hydride storage medium and the weight of the metal will do wonders for your fuel economy. The only place hydrogen fueled vehicles will ever make sense is in mines and isolated locations where electricity is dirt cheap.
Nodeity
I think the biggest problem is the big oil companies. They have a tendency to gobble up startups like this and then kill them off.
Stephen Colbourne
I think many of you are missing the point of this article. The hydrogen is produced by sunlight using the cobalt catalyst and does not need large quantities of electricity. If this can be done economically it could the hydrogen can be used as a fuel directly or made in to LPG which is already used as a fuel for motor transport.
Kwazai
I'd wonder if boron would do the same thing? Hydrogen is not really a good 'burning' fuel-though the brown's gas is decent. It kind of implodes when burnt. Very hot though (2500F +/-). As a octane booster it works very well. Might be worthwhile for them to look at this process with methane from natural gas for the hydrogen (CH4 vs H2O-covalent vs. anionic). The problem as an octane booster is that the SI engines would need add'l compression and spark advance to take advantage of it and would 'meltdown' without it. I'd wonder about a LNG deisel with a hydrogen boost. (BTU per LB...). Current methods that I know are 240hz pulsed DC, acid bath with nucleate sites of St/St or nickel oxide (platimnum or palladium or iridium ...). (drop some aluminum in PotAsh... ) Battery technology has for decades tried to address the exact opposite (nix the hydrogen) and fuel cell technology has been affected by it.
Thanks for reading our articles. Please consider subscribing to New Atlas Plus.
By doing so you will be supporting independent journalism, plus you will get the benefits of a faster, ad-free experience.