A chance discovery may revolutionize hydrogen production

Apr 14, 2011
Using a molybdenum based catalyst, hydrogen bubbles are made cheaply and at room temperature. Credit: EPFL / Alain Herzog

Producing hydrogen in a sustainable way is a challenge and production cost is too high. A team led by EPFL Professor Xile Hu has discovered that a molybdenum based catalyst is produced at room temperature, inexpensive and efficient. The results of the research are published online in Chemical Science Thursday the 14th of April. An international patent based on this discovery has just been filled.

Existing in large quantities on Earth, water is composed of hydrogen and . It can be broken down by applying an electrical current; this is the process known as electrolysis. To improve this particularly slow reaction, platinum is generally used as a . However, is a particularly expensive material that has tripled in price over the last decade. Now EPFL scientists have shown that amorphous molybdenum sulphides, found abundantly, are efficient catalysts and hydrogen production cost can be significantly lowered.

Industrial prospects

The new catalysts exhibit many advantageous technical characteristics. They are stable and compatible with acidic, neutral or basic conditions in water. Also, the rate of the hydrogen production is faster than other catalysts of the same price. The discovery opens up some interesting possibilities for industrial applications such as in the area of solar energy storage.

It's only by chance that Daniel Merki, Stéphane Fierro, Heron Vrubel and Xile Hu made this discovery during an electrochemical experience. "It's a perfect illustration of the famous serendipity principle in fundamental research", as Xile Hu emphasizes: "Thanks to this unexpected result, we've revealed a unique phenomenon", he explains. "But we don't yet know exactly why the catalysts are so efficient."

The next stage is to create a prototype that can help to improve sunlight-driven . But a better understanding of the observed phenomenon is also required in order to optimize the catalysts.

Explore further: Mineral magic? Common mineral capable of making and breaking bonds

More information: Daniel Merki, Stéphane Fierro, Heron Vrubel and Xile Hu, "Amorphous Molybdenum Sulfide Films as Catalysts for Electrochemical Hydrogen Production in Water," Chemical Science, 2011.

Provided by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

4.8 /5 (15 votes)

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User comments : 13

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Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2011
An international patent based on this discovery has just been filled.


According to the patent office, you CANNOT patent a catalyst, because, "Anyone skilled in the art would think to use catalysts."

This was one of the key reasons the patent offices refused Rossi's "E-cat".
kaasinees
1 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2011
And what will you do with this hydrogen? Storage and transportation of it is very expensive.
ZephirAWT
Apr 14, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
rynox
not rated yet Apr 14, 2011
Does this process create any waste that is hazardous or harmful to the environment?

It would be interesting if they could store the hydrogen in liquid and use it in existing gasoline engines. I recall reading something about storing hydrogen in buckyballs a while back.
JamesThomas
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2011
And what will you do with this hydrogen? Storage and transportation of it is very expensive.


Generally in relationship to solar electric sites, excess electricity made during the daylight hours is used to make clean-burning Hydrogen (via electrolysis) which is stored on-site. This is then used (burned) in a conventional type steam generator also on-site. This way electricity production can be 24/7, both day and night with the sun being your original source of energy. It seems to be a nice marriage.
Shootist
not rated yet Apr 14, 2011
And what will you do with this hydrogen? Storage and transportation of it is very expensive.


Generally in relationship to solar electric sites, excess electricity made during the daylight hours is used to make clean-burning Hydrogen (via electrolysis) which is stored on-site. This is then used (burned) in a conventional type steam generator also on-site. This way electricity production can be 24/7, both day and night with the sun being your original source of energy. It seems to be a nice marriage.


Yawning.

Build a 1000 MW fission plant and flash sea water, easy peasy japaneesy.

Build 100 1000 MW fission plants and North America could tell the Mideast to drink their oil.
PinkElephant
3 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2011
North America could tell the Mideast to drink their oil
Whereas North America will drink its tremendously compounded nuclear waste...

One also has to wonder, what North America's reaction would be to places like Iran, Afghanistan, or Libya building 1000 MW fission plants... Or, how about Mexico building a few of those right along the U.S. border?
Parsec
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
Pinkie --> What is 'tremendously compounded nuclear waste..'?

Nucular power plants currently just cost too much to make relative to the power they generate. That is a much bigger problem that the very small amount of high level waste generated by them. I don't think people really understand how much energy there is in uranium. The entire amount of high level waste for a power plant that runs uninterrupted for an entire year would fit in a single 18 wheeler.

But an entirely new and MUCH less expensive way to construct these things will have to be found. Currently the economics are just unsustainable.
perryoxide
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
... the very small amount of high level waste generated by them.... would fit in a single 18 wheeler.


"Very small"!?

That comes to several thousand cubic feet of ultra-poisonous waste with half-lives many times longer than recorded history, man! The stuff's so dense the weight would ruin a single semi-trailer and you'd pay a fortune in fines if you tried to drive it anywhere.

Forget it. You'll need two or three trucks, I'm sure!
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
@Parsec,
The entire amount of high level waste for a power plant that runs uninterrupted for an entire year would fit in a single 18 wheeler.
Taking your figure on faith (I'm too lazy to check), that still doesn't account for low-grade waste (of which there'd be exponentially more.) Is your figure for a 1000 MW plant? Now let's take these quantities and multiply by 100. And let's remember that this mess is compounded with every passing year: the waste doesn't go away, it just accumulates, all over the place (currently, tends to be stored on premises at the various nuclear powerplants -- just like it was in Fukushima.)
Nucular power plants currently just cost too much to make relative to the power they generate.
You meant "nucLEar", right? The costs are actually not as much of a problem, as the insurance and the price of long-term stewardship of the waste.
pres68y
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
...and about 90% of the uranium is still unused that can be reprocessed and reused.
USians don't seem to have much problem with dumping hundreds of tons of "depleted uranium" on Iraqis but that cannot be done to waste from power generation?
Always seems to be unlimited funds available for annihilating people but it's always scarce to help them
PinkElephant
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
...and about 90% of the uranium is still unused that can be reprocessed and reused.
Problem is, it's a great deal more expensive (and hazardous) to reprocess nuclear fuel, than to just mine and refine fresh uranium ore.
dumping hundreds of tons of "depleted uranium" on Iraqis
"depleted" means it's not nearly as radioactive as nuclear reactor waste: the radioactive isotopes have been extracted for nuclear power/weapons use, and what's left is merely heavy and toxic (in a way similar to lead). Not good to eat or breathe in, but it's not going to kill you just by virtue of being near you.
but that cannot be done to waste from power generation?
What?! Are you suggesting we dump nuclear waste on Iraqis??
neiorah
not rated yet Apr 18, 2011
I am just happy that maybe someday soon we will have access to hydrogen fuel cells at a lower cost and higher efficiency. Anything to get us away from polluting oil is a good thing.
unknownorgin
not rated yet Apr 23, 2011
My spelling/english skill is nothing to brag about but no one bothered to proof read this article before it was posted. Water in its pure form will not conduct electrical current and is the best known dielectric so ions such as sodium or chlorine must be added before hydrogen can be extracted. Most if not all metal sulphides are electricly conductive so this may be an effect caused by an increase in electrode surface area rather than a chemical catalysts. For all the wrong reasons this discovery could make it possible to produce large amounts of hydrogen with a small piece of equipment or tank.