One of the most amazing things about research on renewable energy is the development of affordable and more efficient ways of harvesting hydrogen from water. This is as a result of its ability to provide a round-the-clock green fuel and energy storage solution that truly works.
The electrolysis process which is normally utilized in splitting water to capture hydrogen needs a great deal of energy, hence making the technology an excellent fit for variable energy sources such as solar power and wind—with wind often generating surplus energy.
This presents two benefits: while the excess clean energy can be used to drive the process of splitting water, producing hydrogen fuel to power electric vehicles and fuel cells; the “renewable fuel” can also be stored as backup clean energy for the erratic grid-connected energy sources.
Engineers at the Washington State University have now taken another bold step towards making hydrogen production better through the use of nanotechnology to create a catalyst that seamlessly conducts electricity when compared to previous catalysts, while avoiding the use of precious or rare metals.
Besides requiring a huge amount of power—and power mostly sourced from fossil fuels, the catalyst that converts water into constituent atomic parts also has to be made from very expensive rare- earth metals like ruthenium and platinum.
The exorbitant price of these metal catalysts has caused shunning of the water-splitting technology, or fueled the technique with energy sources that are highly polluting.
When the WSU team added nanoparticles of very conductive copper to a framework of cobalt-base, their catalyst executed the electrolysis process more efficiently than the catalysts made of platinum. Once an electric current goes through the device, the oxygen atoms draw to and then emerge all around the cobalt-based electrode.
The team claims their catalyst can produce oxygen much better than the other existing produced hydrogen and commercial catalysts at comparable rates.
“Hydrogen production by electrolysis of water is the greenest way to convert electricity to chemical fuel,” said Junhua Song, a WSU Ph.D. student who synthesized the catalyst and carried out most of the experimental work.
Critical to the WSU work was the exceptionally detailed atomic modeling and experimentation of the catalyst and its improved performance when copper nanoparticles were added to the structure.
“The research team has provided a new perspective in designing and improving non-precious metal-based catalysts for hydrogen production,” said Lin. “This catalyst will pave the way for the development of high-performance, electrolysis-based hydrogen production applications.”
These researchers at WSU are busy looking for external funding to boost their innovative work; with which they plan to enhance the catalyst’s efficiency and stability.