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A team of Stanford University researchers is on the verge of disrupting the hydrogen market with a new low cost, low voltage water splitting device.


New Discovery Lets Pinners Make Sustainable Hydrogen In Mason Jars… Eventually

A team of Stanford University researchers is on the verge of disrupting the hydrogen market with a new low cost, low voltage water splitting device.

We’re guessing it will be a while before you see one of these sustainable hydrogen devices at your next Pinterest party, but in the meantime, it sure looks like a nifty way to put your spare Mason jars to use. A team of scientists at Stanford University has come up with a way to produce hydrogen from water in a glass jar using only one — yes, just one — low-voltage, low-cost catalyst.

sustainable hydrogen Stanford University

200 Hours Of Low-Voltage Hydrogen Production

The Stanford water-splitter takes an earlier iteration of the device a big step up the R&D chain. A version developed last year, based on nickel and iron, was able to run on 1.5 volts of electricity.

The new Stanford study, published last week in the journal Nature, demonstrates that the device can run continuously for 200 hours without degrading, performing better than its counterparts based on platinum and iridium.

The low voltage aspect is critical because it pushes forward the potential for using solar and wind energy (and tidal energy) to manufacture hydrogen on a large scale.

The current means of hydrogen production is an energy intensive process based on a non-renewable source, namely fossil natural gas.


Cannibalizing Lithium-Ion Batteries For Sustainable Hydrogen

Hydrogen fuel cells are far (far) behind lithium-ion batteries in terms of mobile energy storage for EVs (electric vehicles), but fuel cell technology is advancing on the R&D end and I’m guessing that hydrogen will give batteries some pretty sharp competition some time in the sparkling green future.

If that does come about, lithium-ion batteries could end up being their own undoing.

Somewhat ironically, Stanford’s new sustainable hydrogen device is based on a catalyst that the Stanford team discovered by cannibalizing a research method used for lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology.

In Li-ion research, a method called lithium-induced electrical tuning is used to break metal oxides down into smaller particles, in order to see if a material would make a good catalyst. More particles translates into a greater surface area, which provides more active sites for the catalytic reaction to take place.

The Stanford team used tuning to test the efficiency of cheaper alternatives to the catalysts that are currently standard in water-splitting, those being platinum and iridium.

The team settled on a much less expensive material, nickel-ion oxide. Here’s one of the researchers enthusing over its qualities:

…nickel-iron oxide is a world-record performing material that can catalyze both the hydrogen and the oxygen reaction. No other catalyst can do this with such great performance.

Here’s the somewhat more restrained version from the study abstract, under the title, “Bifunctional non-noble metal oxide nanoparticle electrocatalysts through lithium-induced conversion for overall water splitting:”

…Here we demonstrate the improvement of catalytic activity when transition metal oxide (iron, cobalt, nickel oxides and their mixed oxides) nanoparticles (~20 nm) are electrochemically transformed into ultra-small diameter (2–5 nm) nanoparticles through lithium-induced conversion reactions…We achieve 10 mA cm−2 water-splitting current at only 1.51 V for over 200 h without degradation in a two-electrode configuration and 1 M KOH, better than the combination of iridium and platinum as benchmark catalysts.

A conventional water-splitting device uses two electrodes, one with a platinum catalyst and one with iridium. The nickel-ion oxide catalyst, aside from being relatively dirt cheap, also simplifies the supply chain and smooths the path to commercialization.

The research team also notes that the electrochemical tuning could be applied to the fuel end of the equation, resulting in a diversity of fuel options in addition to hydrogen.

The Water Supply Issue

Speaking of supply chains, fossil natural gas carries an enormous load of environmental baggage all along its supply chain, from local impacts to waste disposal issues.

Water-derived hydrogen hops over all those problems if the process is powered by renewable energy, but it runs smack into water resource issues that are reaching critical mass in many parts of the globe, including here in the US.

If water-derived hydrogen does have a prominent role to play in the future energy landscape, large-scale operations will most likely be localized in drought-free regions, or in coastal areas where seawater is handy. Municipal wastewater is another potential resource for sustainable hydrogen production.

On the small end of the scale, inexpensive photochemical water-splitting devices are being developed for household use in underserved communities that can run on non-potable water, which helps to mitigate water use conflicts.

Opening Up A Hydrogen Can Of Worms

When it comes to road trips, hydrogen fuel cells are way behind lithium-ion batteries, but hydrogen fuel cell EVs are already starting to nudge batteries out of specialty markets, such as warehouse operations and other shipping/logistics sectors.

The enormous California market is gearing up to provide fueling infrastructure for fuel cell EVs, and the US Energy Department is promoting hydrogen on a national scale, so stay tuned.

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Image: Courtesy of Stanford University.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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