Government Scientists More Efficient at Splitting Hydrogen

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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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