New water-splitting catalyst found

May 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Expanding on work published two years ago, MIT's Daniel Nocera and his associates have found yet another formulation, based on inexpensive and widely available materials, that can efficiently catalyze the splitting of water molecules using electricity. This could ultimately form the basis for new storage systems that would allow buildings to be completely independent and self-sustaining in terms of energy: The systems would use energy from intermittent sources like sunlight or wind to create hydrogen fuel, which could then be used in fuel cells or other devices to produce electricity or transportation fuels as needed.

Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry, says that solar energy is the only feasible long-term way of meeting the world’s ever-increasing needs for energy, and that storage technology will be the key enabling factor to make sunlight practical as a dominant source of energy. He has focused his research on the development of less-expensive, more-durable materials to use as the electrodes in devices that use electricity to separate the and oxygen atoms in water molecules. By doing so, he aims to imitate the process of photosynthesis, by which plants harvest sunlight and convert the energy into chemical form.

Nocera pictures small-scale systems in which rooftop would provide electricity to a home, and any excess would go to an electrolyzer — a device for splitting — to produce hydrogen, which would be stored in tanks. When more energy was needed, the hydrogen would be fed to a , where it would combine with oxygen from the air to form water, and generate electricity at the same time.

An electrolyzer uses two different electrodes, one of which releases the and the other the . Although it is the hydrogen that would provide a storable source of energy, it is the oxygen side that is more difficult, so that’s where he and many other research groups have concentrated their efforts. In a paper in Science in 2008, Nocera reported the discovery of a durable and low-cost material for the oxygen-producing electrode based on the element cobalt.

Now, in research being reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Nocera, along with postdoctoral researcher Mircea Dincă and graduate student Yogesh Surendranath, report the discovery of yet another material that can also efficiently and sustainably function as the oxygen-producing electrode. This time the material is nickel borate, made from materials that are even more abundant and inexpensive than the earlier find.

Even more significantly, Nocera says, the new finding shows that the original compound was not a unique, anomalous material, and suggests that there may be a whole family of such compounds that researchers can study in search of one that has the best combination of characteristics to provide a widespread, long-term energy-storage technology.

“Sometimes if you do one thing, and only do it once,” Nocera says, “you don’t know — is it extraordinary or unusual, or can it be commonplace?” In this case, the new material “keeps all the requirements of being cheap and easy to manufacture” that were found in the cobalt-based electrode, he says, but “with a different metal that’s even cheaper than cobalt.” The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation.

But the research is still in an early stage. “This is a door opener,” Nocera says. “Now, we know what works in terms of chemistry. One of the important next things will be to continue to tune the system, to make it go faster and better. This puts us on a fast technological path.” While the two compounds discovered so far work well, he says, he is convinced that as they carry out further research even better compounds will come to light. “I don’t think we’ve found the silver bullet yet,” he says.

Already, as the research has continued, Nocera and his team have increased the rate of production from these catalysts a hundredfold from the level they initially reported two years ago.

John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, calls this a nice result, but says that commercial electrolyzers already exist that have better performance than these new laboratory versions. “The question then is under what circumstances would this system provide some advantage over the existing commercial systems,” he says. For large-scale deployment of solar fuel-producing systems, he says, “the big commercial electrolyzers use concentrated alkali for their electrolyte, which is OK in an industrial setting were engineers know how to handle the stuff safely; but when we are talking about thousands of square miles of solar water-splitting arrays, and individual homeowners, then an alternative electrolyte like this benign borate solution may be more viable.”

The original discovery has already led to the creation of a company, called Sun Catalytix, that aims to commercialize the system in the next two years. And his research program was recently awarded a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency — .

Explore further: Novel microscopy pencils patterns in polymers at the nanoscale

More information: PNAS paper: www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/05/06/1001859107

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User comments : 14

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kaasinees
1.4 / 5 (10) May 14, 2010
When are they going to realize hydrogen is a big fail?
Hydrogen is an energy carrier, meaning you cant win energy by making hydrogen. It is merely a storage medium, and a wasteful one that is. Waste of research and time. I am truly mad about this, it is not science!
nrdufour
4.4 / 5 (7) May 14, 2010
Just a little reminder: science doesn't care first of the applications of its discoveries. What matters is seek and find new facts/theories/proofs...
degojoey
not rated yet May 14, 2010
Hydrogen has its faults still, but make no mistake 50 years from now it will be our energy supplier, prior to us figuring out fusion. Sure right now it has its faults such as storage and production efficiency, but believe me as a garage experimenter with electrolysis, there is a LOT of energy to be had here. And if you research it, there has been methods and even experiments that use resonance of the water molecule along with electricity to split it with a much much higher efficiency. Think big oil will let that little secret out though? you could run a car on water gas!
Caliban
1 / 5 (1) May 14, 2010
If nothing else, it allows for efficient storage of intermittent energy sources, ie wind/solar, which are present, to varying degree, everywhere.
This allows for the collection and storage of energy on either a distributed or centralized basis, or, in effect, both.
podizzle
not rated yet May 14, 2010
When are they going to realize hydrogen is a big fail?
Hydrogen is an energy carrier, meaning you cant win energy by making hydrogen. It is merely a storage medium, and a wasteful one that is. Waste of research and time. I am truly mad about this, it is not science!

so nuclear batteries?
RayWilson
not rated yet May 14, 2010
OK. We now get cheap hydrogen. How about also extracting free CO2 from air, combining it with the hydrogen to make a suitable hydrocarbon fuel. Again, power this by solar or small nuclear.
goldengod
not rated yet May 14, 2010
Resonance of water molecule. first I have heard of that one. Nice!!!
Joeviocoe
5 / 5 (1) May 15, 2010
Another found catalyst for hydrogen electrolysis of water... There are dozens already (sodium hydroxide, etc.)

This article like so many before them refuse to give actual numbers of efficiency. How much energy does it take?

Right now, much of the electricity used to make hydrogen from water is wasted as heat... better catalysts might help reduce that waste. *It will never be ZERO waste however*.
perryeh
5 / 5 (1) May 15, 2010
To kaasinees:
Profound, though ignorant. You use hydrogen to store wind and solar energy, etc., which makes it a battery of sorts; an enabler as well. No doubt, as you frequently point out when you get angry about other alternatives, "What to do when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing?" You said it yourself, H2 is an energy carrier, just like electricity. Since it costs about the same to transport as electricity, it becomes a transportable carrier. By your logic, electricity is "a big fail."
The truth is, more work to be done, but this technology is encouraging.
bearly
2.3 / 5 (3) May 15, 2010
podizzle, In 1986 the Salt Lake Tribune report a scientist at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory did indead invent and produce a safe, working nuclear battery that was the size of a soda pop can and would produce 1/2 a watt of AC current. Admittedly that is not much, but it was stated that it would produce that 1/2w for 1200 years. A few cases of batteries wired in series and you would have been energy independant for life and then some. The inventer was qouted as saying that this was one of those inventions that would not get buried and he would have the product on the market soon. It was never heard of again to my knowledge. I wonder if the inventor wound up buried.
In that same issue was an article that in the prior year, 1985, the US government seized over 5000 patents for "national security reasons". In reality we have no idea what our goverment is hiding from us.
Tan0r5
not rated yet May 15, 2010
"The lack of usable water worldwide has made it more valuable than oil" June 26 (Bloomberg).
Its okay to use as fuel for industry and transportation but not to satisfy human thirst? What a waste. Hey, why not use wastes for fuel without burning or chemicals. Oh, the experts say it's not "economically feasible!" Thanks PhysOrg for reporting it.
tadchem
not rated yet May 15, 2010
A reminder concerning catalysis: a catalyst cannot alter the amount of energy required to perform a chemical reaction or the amount of energy released by a chemical reaction. It can only facilitate the kinetics by reducing the energy required to form the intermediates in the reaction - not much of an issue in electrolysis.
labtvonline
not rated yet May 15, 2010
It may have a few downfalls but I feel like hydrogen is still a great source of energy. Also it can solve one of the main problems with our energy system today which is local storage. I just recently saw video about how scientists are using aluminum nano particles as a catalyst. They seem pretty high on this technology but I'd love to hear some feedback on the process. I'll post a link below to video.

http://www.ndep.u...dd-Water
Graeme
not rated yet May 17, 2010
Aluminium packs a lot more energy per litre than hydrogen, and can be efficiently used in a battery. Much more efficient than hydrogen.

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