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Energy Breakthrough: One Step Closer to Extracting Hydrogen From Water

A research team at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland has announced they have come upon a new catalyst for electrolysis to split hydrogen out of water. In a serendipitous moment the team led by Xile Hu made this discovery during an electrochemical experiment.  Hu said, “It’s a perfect illustration of the famous serendipity principle in fundamental research. Thanks to this unexpected result, we’ve revealed a unique phenomenon.” Being alert has rewards when lightning strikes, thanks to Professor Hu and his group the new hydrogen catalyst has been found.

Splitting hydrogen is an energy expensive process.  For industrial use most hydrogen is extracted using heat for the energy and sources such as natural gas with more easily cracked apart molecular bonds.  Cheap free hydrogen is a dream of energy nirvana for many, but as a practical matter having cheap hydrogen sources would have a basic cost savings across a wide swath of industrial production.  It’s an important breakthrough, and how low the operating costs get are important data.

Professor Hu’s team discovered that a molybdenum-based catalyst allows hydrogen production at room temperature, and is inexpensive and efficient. EPFL has already started an international patent filing based on the discovery.

The team, Daniel Merki, Stéphane Fierro, Heron Vrubel and Xile Hu has published the paper Amorphous Molybdenum Sulfide Films as Catalysts for Electrochemical Hydrogen Production in Water in the journal Chemical Science.

The background is water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. The water molecule can be cracked apart from flowing an electrical current between electrodes in the process known as electrolysis. As this is a slow and energy consuming reaction, platinum is generally used as a catalyst to improve the production rate. But platinum is a dreadfully expensive material that has tripled in price over the last decade.

Now EPFL scientists have shown that abundant and commercially available amorphous molybdenum sulphides are efficient catalysts and hydrogen production cost can be significantly lowered.  That’s a grand statement yet the press release isn’t conveniently clear on making a comparison.  What is clear is 15 mA cm?2 at ? = 200 mV) will get the job done.  This is not a lot of power and someone will kick in the comparative numbers.

The other significant benefit is the catalysts are stable and compatible with acidic, neutral or basic conditions of the water and the rate of the hydrogen production is faster than other catalysts of the similar price.

The discovery opens up some interesting possibilities for industrial applications. Plus it could offer a tool in the area of solar energy storage.

The catch is as with all the water splitting technologies is the hydrogen gas bubbles out along with the oxygen making oxyhydrogen gas also known as Browns Gas, a ready to ignite fuel mixture.  Getting the hydrogen and oxygen separated without any possible ignition is the next step to useful electrolysis of water beyond a process that reignites the oxyhydrogen gas for the heat and pressure gain.

Its quite a breakthrough, the dam holding up hydrogen production has a trickle over the top now, a hint that splitting water is an idea that with more research might get to a lower cost industrial scale.  Some engineers are already calculating if money can be saved, and the independent experimenters are likely thrilled to get an improvement over the popular stainless steel plate method.

The EPFL team has made the breakthrough.  It has certainly set off a new round exploration.  We’re one step closer to economical hydrogen production from water.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: A New Way to Produce Hydrogen




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Leave a comment
  • Anonymous on April 21 2011 said:
    sorry but this is NOT original. the university of valencia in spain had a molybenum sulphur catalyst for the same purpose years ago. see keelynet or google.

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