A new collaborative study from Delft University and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) shows a highly-efficient, simple way to produce hydrogen through solar water-splitting at a low cost.

The team of researchers, including 2016 PRiME Plenary speaker Michael Graetzel, state that by using Earth-abundant catalysts and solar cells, effective water-splitting systems could sustainably produce affordable hydrogen.

Graetzel, known for his low-cost, high-efficiency solar cell that won him the 2010 Millennium Technology Grand Prize, helped lead the effort by separating the positive and negative electrodes using a bipolar membrane, leading to a simple yet effective new method.

Hydrogen economy

The technology behind water-splitting is essential in an economy shifting toward more hydrogen use as alternative fuels. While efficient methods of generating hydrogen do currently exist, the techniques used to produce the gas consume large amounts of fossil fuels.

Moving toward a hydrogen economy could help alleviate the effects of climate change, but only if the means used to produce the gas are also sustainable. This is where water-splitting comes in.

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The technique of producing hydrogen from water has been discussed by researchers for the better part of the last 40 years, but there has yet to be a breakthrough to make these processes commercially viable.

In an effort to move towards a hydrogen-fuel economy, researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology are looking to begin to overcome one of the major hurdles by developing an affordable, stable way to get hydrogen from water.

The main concept behind the study is to move way from traditionally used catalysts made from expensive precious metals toward ones of common materials. The researchers believe that the new development derived from earth-abundant materials could also be used as a catalyst, possible overcoming the cost obstacle.

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University of Iowa researchers have teamed up with California-based startup HyperSolar to progress the science in producing clean energy from sunlight and water. The goal of this research is to develop a way to efficiently and sustainably produce low-cost renewable hydrogen for commercial use.

Hydrogen has huge potential as an alternative form of energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, hydrogen has the highest energy content of any fuel we use today (carbon dependent fuels included).

But hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element on this planet, so it needs to be produced. Currently, most hydrogen is produced via steam reforming – a process using fossil fuels and creating carbon dioxide. While the end produce is clan, renewable energy, the means of getting to that product were carbon dependent. The new study hopes to help move hydrogen production away from the traditional means of creation and toward electrolysis, which requires only electricity and water to create hydrogen.

“Developing clean energy systems is a goal worldwide,” says Syed Mubeen, HyperSolar’s lead scientist and chemical engineering professor at the University of Iowa. “Currently, we understand how clean energy systems such as solar cells, wind turbines, et cetera, work at a high level of sophistication. The real challenge going forward is to develop inexpensive clean energy systems that can be cost competitive to fossil fuel systems and be adopted globally and not just in the developed countries.”

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Researchers from the University of Connecticut are pushing toward a hydrogen economy with the development of a new catalyst for cheaper, light-weight hydrogen fuel cells.

The catalyst — made of graphene nanotubes infused with sulfur — could potentially work to make hydrogen capture more commercially viable.

This development comes during a time where many people are looking to hydrogen in the search for a new, sustainable energy source. While hydrogen may be abundant, it often requires a costly and energy-consuming process to produce. However, if scientists could find an affordable and efficient way to capture hydrogen, it may begin to shift society away from the fossil fuel-driven economy toward a hydrogen economy.

The material developed by the University of Connecticut professors currently shows results that are competitive with some of the top materials traditionally used in these processes, but at a fraction of the cost.

The secret lies in the non-metal catalyst that has many of the same electrochemical properties as rare earth materials.

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In an effort to move away from fossil fuels toward a renewable future, researchers have invested time and resources into developing hydrogen fuel. The most efficient way to create this sustainable fuel has been through water-splitting, but the process is not perfect. Now, researchers from MIT, the Skoltech Institute of Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin believe they may have made a breakthrough that could lead to the widespread adoption of water-splitting to produce hydrogen fuel.

The key discovery in the paper published in Nature Communications is the mobilization of oxygen atoms from the crystal surface of perovskite-oxide electrodes to participate in the formation of oxygen gas, which can speed up water-splitting reactions.

The breakthrough could be a crucial step in helping the energy infrastructure efficiently move away from traditional energy sources to renewables.

“The generation of oxygen from water remains a significant bottleneck in the development of water electrolyzers and also in the development of fuel cell and metal-air battery technologies,” said J. Tyler Mefford, current ECS member and lead author of the study.

But the new results didn’t come out of the woodwork. The data illustrates collaborative work across experimental and theoretical fields. The new work essentially explains over 40 years of theory and experiments, looking at why some approaches worked and others failed.

“If we could develop catalysts made with Earth-abundant materials that could reversibly and efficiently electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, we could have affordable hydrogen generation from renewables — and with that, the possibility of electric cars that run on water with ranges similar to gas powered cars,” Mefford said.

Hydrogen Meets Lithium Ion Batteries

When it comes to energy storage, hydrogen is becoming more and more promising. From hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to the “artificial leaf” to the transformation of waste heat into hydrogen, researchers are looking to hydrogen for answers to the growing demand for energy storage.

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), researchers are using hydrogen to make lithium ion batteries operate longer and have faster transport rates.

In a response to the need for higher performance batteries, the researchers began by looking for a way to achieve better capacity, voltage, and energy density. Those qualities are primarily determined by the binding between lithium ions and electrode material. Small changes to the structure and chemistry of the electrode can mean big things for the qualities of the lithium ion battery.

The research team from LLNL discovered that by subtly changing the electrode, treating it with hydrogen, lithium ion batteries could have higher capacities and faster transport levels.

“These findings provide qualitative insights in helping the design of graphene-based materials for high-power electrodes,” said Morris Wang, an LLNL materials scientist and co-author of the paper.

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How Heat Becomes Hydrogen

More than half energy produced annually—whether it’s heat, gas, biomass, or methane—is wasted. Harvesting the wasted  heat energy could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent. Researchers from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State are looking for new, environmentally friendly ways to harvest and recycle this wasted energy in an effort to create hydrogen gas.

“Existing methods are already very effective at making hydrogen gas,” says Bruce Logan, Evan Pugh Professor of Environmental Engineering. “The problem is that these methods consume fossil fuels in order to generate enough energy to create the hydrogen gas.”

By producing hydrogen gas via waste heat, the researchers eliminate the need for fossil fuels in production.

“Since the new system runs on waste heat, it is effectively carbon neutral and fossil fuel neutral,” says Logan.

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Development to Boost Solar Cell Usage

new-solar

A working cell from Switzer’s research, with gas evolution.
Image: Sam O’Keefe, Missouri S&T.

In order to satisfy growing energy demands, scientists are looking for ways to develop and deploy a broad range of alternative energy sources that can be both efficient and environmentally friendly. At Missouri University of Science and Technology, a team is working to make clean energy more accessible through the development of a cheap, simple way to split hydrogen and oxygen through a new electrodeposition method.

ECS member and head researcher in the project, Jay Switzer, believes that the new development will produce highly efficient solar cells. He and ECS student member James Hill predict the process will be able to effectively gather solar energy for use as fuel, further increasing the amount of hydrogen available for fuel usage.

“The work helps to solve the problem that solar energy is intermittent,” says Switzer. “Obviously, we cannot have the sun produce energy on one spot the entire day, but our process converts the energy into a form that is more easily stored.”

Electrodeposition for Hydrogen

This from Missouri University of Science and Technology:

Switzer and his team use silicon wafers to absorb solar energy. The silicon is submerged in water, with the front surface exposed to a solar energy simulator and the back surface covered in electrodes to conduct the energy. The silicon has cobalt nano-islands formed onto it using a process called electrodeposition.

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Record-Breaking Energy Efficiency Levels

An interdisciplinary team has set a new record for direct solar water splitting efficiency. Surpassing the 17 year old record of 12.4 percent, the new achieved efficiency level of 14 percent guarantees a promising future for solar hydrogen production.

While the potential for renewable energy is available across the globe, the ability to harvest and store this energy is not. One solution to achieving global renewable energy is through artificial photosynthesis.

How to Power the Future

Much like organic photosynthesis, artificial photosynthesis coverts sunlight into chemical energy. This highly-researched concept also has the ability to be carried into semiconductor technology.

Essentially, researchers can take the sun’s electrical power and split water into oxygen and hydrogen with high energy density levels. This type of development has the potential to replace current fossil fuels and create a type of energy that does not emit harmful carbon dioxide.

The concept has not been utilized on a commercial level due to the high cost. However, this new development could raise the efficiency levels to a high enough percentage to make the process economically viable.

This from the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres:

Lead author Matthias May … processed and surveyed about one hundred samples in his excellent doctoral dissertation to achieve this. The fundamental components are tandem solar cells of what are known as III-V semiconductors. Using a now patented photo-electrochemical process, May could modify certain surfaces of these semiconductor systems in such a way that they functioned better in water splitting.

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ECS’s Nate Lewis is propelling his vision of efficient and affordable alternative energy sources with the new development of an “artificial leaf” system that splits water through solar energy to create hydrogen fuel.

(PS: Make sure to catch Nate Lewis’ presentation this October at the fifth international Electrochemical Energy Summit held during the 228th ECS Meeting!)

“This new system shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more,” says Lewis, a 33-year ECS member and scientific director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.

Shattering Water Splitting Records

He and his team, including postdoctoral scholar and ECS member Ke Sun, were able to achieve recording-setting outcomes through the development of a advice with three novel components: two electrodes, one photoanode and one photocathode, and a membrane.

This from Futurity:

The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules, generating protons and electrons as well as oxygen gas. The photocathode recombines the protons and electrons to form hydrogen gas.

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