Clean Hydrogen Power One Step Closer

Researchers have developed a new material for generating hydrogen from water to use as a renewable and carbon neutral fuel.
Published: Thu 30 Apr 2015

A new material which generates renewable hydrogen fuel from water efficiently and cost effectively has been developed by researchers at the University of Bath and Yale University. This will ultimately close the door on the need to create hydrogen from burning fossil fuels, say the researchers.

Clean and storable hydrogen fuel

The invention uses a newly designed molecular catalyst to split water in an electrolyser and create clean and storable hydrogen fuel, as pictured.

Water splitting is an electro-chemical process in which two electrodes generate oxygen and hydrogen from water, respectively. The energy required to drive this process gets locked up in the hydrogen as the fuel with oxygen as by-product. A fuel cell can then harness the energy again elsewhere by recombining the two.

This new patented catalyst is more efficient at performing the crucial oxidation half reaction than any other existing material, minimising energy losses in the electricity-to-hydrogen conversion process. It can be directly applied to various electrode surfaces in a straightforward and highly economical manner.

The need for clean hydrogen

As regulations tighten on the use fossil fuels and their emissions, there is a growing focus on the need for cost effective and efficient ways of creating energy carriers from renewable energy sources.

Solar power is expected to account for 4% of the UK’s total electricity supply by the end of the decade. However, whilst the price of photovoltaic technology has dramatically decreased in recent years as demand has risen, solar energy still poses a major problem-it is intermittent.

One use of the newly developed catalyst is to enable solar power to be transformed and stored as hydrogen which can then be used on demand, regardless of the time of day. The hydrogen can also be combined with carbon dioxide to create methane in the power-to-gas process. [Engerati-SoCalGas To Demonstrate Power-To-Gas]

Whorrod Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath, Dr Ulrich Hintermair says, “Hydrogen is a fantastically versatile and environmentally friendly fuel, however, hydrogen-powered applications are only as ‘green’ as the hydrogen on which they run. Currently, over 90% is derived from fossil fuels.

If we want to bring about a clean hydrogen economy we must first generate clean hydrogen. “This new molecular catalyst will hopefully play a large role in helping create hydrogen from renewable energy sources such as solar power. We are also interested in applying this technology to other forms of renewable energy such as tidal, wind and wave power.”

Professor Matthew Davidson, Head of the Department of Chemistry and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, adds: “Splitting water into its constituent parts is deceptively simple chemistry, but doing it in a sustainable way is one of the holy grails of chemistry because it is the key step in the goal of artificial photosynthesis. The results are extremely exciting because of their potential for practical application.”

Professor Tim Mays, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment (I-SEE) at the University of Bath, adds, “The great thing about hydrogen is its energy density and carbon neutral properties as well as its versatility. Unlike energy such as battery power, hydrogen has the potential to deliver power to much larger applications such as cars and aeroplanes.”

The research team is currently in discussions with a number of energy companies about utilising this technology on a large scale and hope this finding marks the start of contributing to providing the world with more sustainable fuels.