Research

Breakthrough means bright future for clean hydrogen power

Whorrod Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), Dr Ulrich Hintermair

Whorrod Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), Dr Ulrich Hintermair

Our researchers have developed a new material for generating hydrogen from water in collaboration with Yale University. This breakthrough has many practical applications as a renewable and carbon neutral fuel.

Clean, storable hydrogen

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

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.

Greater efficiency, less energy loss

This new patented catalyst, published in Nature Communications, 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.

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 sources.

Solar power on demand

Solar power is believed to be able to provide up to four per cent of the UK's electricity 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 is problematic as it is intermittent meaning electricity is only created when it is light.

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.

Versatile, environmentally friendly fuel

Whorrod Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath, Dr Ulrich Hintermair said: “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 per cent 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.”

Multiple practical applications

Professor Matthew Davidson, Head of the Department of Chemistry and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, added: “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. Uli’s results are extremely exciting because of their potential for practical application. It is great to see another of our talented young Whorrod Fellows making a real world impact so early in their careers.”

Dr 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, added: “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.”

Large-scale potential for industry

The research team are now 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.

The full open access paper ‘A molecular catalyst for ​water oxidation that binds to metal oxide surfaces’ can be viewed at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150311/ncomms7469/full/ncomms7469.html

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