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Published on January 2nd, 2012 | by Susan Kraemer


Government Scientists More Efficient at Splitting Hydrogen

January 2nd, 2012 by  


Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory have just made a breakthrough in bringing the hydrogen economy closer, by splitting hydrogen ten times faster.

Hydrogen will become more useful in a carbon-constrained future, because it can store energy. But the most difficult part has been isolating a single hydrogen molecule in the first place so it can be worked with. Normally, hydrogen shows up only in pairs of atoms – as H2.

Separating it out into single atoms is currently such an energy-intensive and expensive process that it is not cost-effective for energy storage. That is why the much touted future “hydrogen economy” has always remained “just around the corner”, despite hydrogen’s great promise as an important energetic element. Only small amounts are needed to make semiconductors. Today’s hydrogen fuel cells are very expensive.

As Nenad Markovic, a senior chemist at Argonne, noted, “People understand that once you have hydrogen, you can extract a lot of energy from it, but they don’t realize just how hard it is to generate that hydrogen in the first place.” Markovic led research at Argonne that has resulted in finding a cheaper, cleaner way to produce pure hydrogen.

But by adding adding clusters of a metallic complex; nickel-hydroxide to the platinum catalyst currently used, the team was able to split single hydrogen atom out of water molecules much more easily than doing so with only the platinum catalyst.

Their research was reported in the December 2 issue of Science. How much faster and easier was it?

The new catalyst combination drove the reaction at ten times the previous rate, saving both energy and money. Chalk one up for those “Big Government” scientists – who this year escaped narrowly escaped defunding by the Tea Party/GOP.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science that includes Argonne National Lab, where this breakthrough was made, escaped a cut that the Republican House funding level threatened.

“We won’t have to shut down our facilities,” Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory told Science Insider in April when a compromise was hammered out. “We may have to adjust how we operate them, but we won’t have to shut them down.”

Researchers had expected as much as 20% in cuts when the first House budget was proposed, and were relieved when it looked like just 6% cuts earlier this year.

But after Senate Democrats were able to put back some science and renewable energy funding in December for FY2012, the final Office of Science budget for next year wound up having a small increase to $4.9 billion, below the Obama Administration’s request for $5.4 billion, but a slight increase of $46 million.


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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World

She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American.

As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator’s perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times. 
Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

  • Origo1

    Hasn’t anyone heard of photocatalysts? Water in contact with a photocatalyst while simultaneously being exposed to light generates hydrogen and oxygen, which are then directed through gas separators.

  • Mark P

    Susan needs to get some science education. electrolysis separates both hydrogens from the water, and they will be in the molecular form – H2.

    the balanced equation comes to – (2) H2O (l) -> 2 O2 (g) + 2 H2 (g).

  • Anonymous

    Hydrogen is a highly refined form of natural gas. It’s much easier to store if you leave it in the methane molecule until you need it.

    • Anonymous

      Better to leave it connected the rest of the methane molecule and also leave the entire mess in the ground.

    • Mark P

      No it’s not, it’s an element. The most abundant element in the universe, in fact. Also, they produce it from water, not methane.

      • Hydrogen is nowadays mostly produced from natural gas (methane). This is the only known method which is cheap-enough (still very expensive).

        However, the article was about hydrolisis aided by an efficient new catalyst.

        This is promising, but I believe there are several similar approaches. My favourite is the one which uses solar energy directly for splitting water and doesn’t need external electrical energy at all.

  • Bush funded the DOE’s Hydrogen Initiative to the tune of 1 Billion. Obama-Chu should be stepping up and going “all in” on Hydrogen research including nanomaterials, storage, building highway infrastructure. Romney should be on this issue as well.

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