A water splitter with a double role

March 9, 2009 By Lucy Goodchild
The carbon nitride ensures that hydrogen is formed when water is irradiated with sunlight. Image: Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces

(PhysOrg.com) -- There is a lot of hope invested in hydrogen, but it also presents some problems. It is energy-rich, clean and, as a constituent of water, of almost unlimited availability. However, so far it has been difficult to access it. Scientists at the Max Planck In-stitute of Colloids and Interfaces have now found a simple, low-cost way to produce hydrogen.

They extract this energy source from by irradiating it with sunlight and using a as an inexpensive photo catalyst. Up to now this reaction has required organometal compounds and inorganic semiconductors combined with expensive , such as platinum. (, January 2009)

is seen as the energy source of the future. There is around three times as much energy in a kilogramme of hydrogen as in a kilogramme of crude oil. In ad-dition, extracting energy from hydrogen in fuel cells, for example, creates no pol-lutants, only water. However, hydrogen is only present on the Earth in compounds such as water. Hydrogen must be in its pure form to create energy, and it must be produced with regenerative such as sunlight.

Scientists at the of and Interfaces have succeeded in taking a step in this direction with, surprisingly, one of the oldest polymers known to chemists. They used a carbon nitride, manufactured for the first time by Justus Liebig in 1834 and which he called "melon", to create hydrogen from water with the aid of sunlight. "The special thing about carbon nitride is that it is stable in water, even under extremely acidic or conditions. Apart from that, it is very easy and inexpensive to produce," says Xinchen Wang, whose research group carried out the experiments in collaboration with the University of Tokyo and Fuzhou University in China.

Carbon nitride uses sunlight to extract hydrogen from water. A substance that chemists call a sacrificial absorbs the oxygen from the water. The clever trick here is that the chemists in Potsdam did not need to use a precious metal like platinum. The traditional processes require precious metals, in addition to a semiconductor acting as an aerial for the sunlight, to catalyse the production of hydrogen. The carbon nitride does both jobs at the same time and furthermore acts as a particularly stable organic semiconductor that is much easier to produce than the inorganic materials normally used.

However, only four micromoles of hydrogen per hour bubbled up out of the re-searchers' reaction vessel. "Our yield is therefore not as high as that achieved with the established methods," says Xinchen Wang. "But we have shown that it is, in principle, possible to manufacture hydrogen with just a single organic substance as an additive." When the researchers added the normal quantities of platinum as a catalyst, the yield increased substantially - by a factor of seven. This means that there is not much more benefit compared to the existing methods, as they work with similar quantities of precious metals as catalysts. Wang and his colleagues are therefore trying to make the carbon nitride more efficient by increasing its active surface area.

"It would be ideal for technical applications if we could split water into hydrogen and elementary oxygen in one step," says Wang. Then chemists would not need a sacrificial reagent to absorb the oxygen. This means, however, that they would have to oxidise the oxygen, in the same way as plants can when they photosynthesise. The researchers' calculations have shown that this should also be possible with carbon nitride as the only additive. In experiments, though, they have needed an additional catalyst.

Wang's scientists are now working on a configuration to combine the production of hydrogen and oxygen. If they are successful, the process of water splitting will be perfect and hydrogen will be a step closer to fulfilling its role as an important source of energy.

More information: Xinchen Wang, Kazuhiko Maeda, Arne Thomas, Kazuhiro Takanabe, Gang Xin, Johan M. Carlsson, Kazunari Domen, Markus Antonietti, A metal-free, polymeric photo catalyst for hydrogen production from water under visible light, Nature Materials, 2009, 8, 76-80

Provided by Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces

Explore further: A Promising Catalyst for Solar-Based Hydrogen Energy Production

Related Stories

A Promising Catalyst for Solar-Based Hydrogen Energy Production

December 2, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have found that a polymer material is an excellent catalyst in a process to produce hydrogen fuel using sunlight and water. The material meets the basic requirements for an ideal catalyst -- including ...

Splitting Water with Sunlight

September 25, 2007

Hydrogen is one of the most important fuels of the future, and the sun will be one of our most important sources of energy. Why not combine the two to produce hydrogen directly from solar energy without any detours involving ...

Outlook bright for hydrogen biofuel cell

October 24, 2005

British scientists say simple, cost-effective hydrogen biofuel cells could be developed from electrodes coated with a bacterial enzyme to oxidize hydrogen.

Scientists learn from nature to split water

August 17, 2008

An international team of researchers led by Monash University has used chemicals found in plants to replicate a key process in photosynthesis paving the way to a new approach that uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen ...

Progress toward Artificial Photosynthesis?

March 9, 2007

Plants can do it: they simply grab carbon dioxide out of the air and covert it into biomass. In this process, known as photosynthesis, the plants use light as their energy source. Chemists would also like to be able to use ...

Recommended for you

Electron highway inside crystal

December 8, 2016

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their ...

Researchers improve qubit lifetime for quantum computers

December 8, 2016

An international team of scientists has succeeded in making further improvements to the lifetime of superconducting quantum circuits. An important prerequisite for the realization of high-performance quantum computers is ...

A nano-roundabout for light

December 8, 2016

Just like in normal road traffic, crossings are indispensable in optical signal processing. In order to avoid collisions, a clear traffic rule is required. A new method has now been developed at TU Wien to provide such a ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mar 09, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 09, 2009
Plants use free HEAT as a catalyst! Something GOOD
should come from cosmic rays!
3 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2009
Hydrogen is not seen as the energy SOURCE of the future. It is seen as an efficient means of storing and TRANSPORTING energy. These are two very different things.

I think the author understands this but still managed to make this common mischaracterization.

Sunlight is a source of energy. Fusion and fission are sources of energy. Wind, wave, and oil are sources of energy.

Hydrogen is an energy medium. Its like a battery. It takes energy to get pure hydrogen as it must be separated from oxygen in its water state. It can then be stored or transported. We get the energy back by recombining it with oxygen. But the source of the energy has to be from somewhere else as vast quantities of pure hydrogen energy are not sitting around for us to bottle and burn.
not rated yet Mar 12, 2009
The storage of H2 will be the problem with using H2 as an energy medium. The pressures involved to get it to the energy density of gasoline would be very high and thus present some logistical difficulties. Probably much better to transport it as a metal hydride, or ammonia, or synthetically produced hydrocarbons (by "re-cycling" the effluent CO2 from coal-fired power plants).

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.