A new twist on an old grade school science project

From Stanford University something familiar to most anyone who has taken science – electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Stanford scientists develop a water splitter that runs on an ordinary AAA battery

new_electrolosis

Stanford scientists have developed a low-cost device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Gas bubbles are produced from electrodes made of inexpensive nickel and iron. Credit: Mark Shwartz/Stanford Precourt Institut for Energy

In 2015, American consumers will finally be able to purchase fuel cell cars from Toyota and other manufacturers. Although touted as zero-emissions vehicles, most of the cars will run on hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming.

Now scientists at Stanford University have developed a low-cost, emissions-free device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis. The battery sends an electric current through two electrodes that split liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Unlike other water splitters that use precious-metal catalysts, the electrodes in the Stanford device are made of inexpensive and abundant nickel and iron.

“Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.”

In addition to producing hydrogen, the novel water splitter could be used to make chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, another important industrial chemical, according to Dai. He and his colleagues describe the new device in a study published in the Aug. 22 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

The promise of hydrogen

Automakers have long considered the hydrogen fuel cell a promising alternative to the gasoline engine. Fuel cell technology is essentially water splitting in reverse. A fuel cell combines stored hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which powers the car. The only byproduct is water – unlike gasoline combustion, which emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Earlier this year, Hyundai began leasing fuel cell vehicles in Southern California. Toyota and Honda will begin selling fuel cell cars in 2015. Most of these vehicles will run on fuel manufactured at large industrial plants that produce hydrogen by combining very hot steam and natural gas, an energy-intensive process that releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

Splitting water to make hydrogen requires no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases. But scientists have yet to develop an affordable, active water splitter with catalysts capable of working at industrial scales.

“It’s been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability,” Dai said. “When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise.”

Saving energy and money

The discovery was made by Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, co-lead author of the study. “Ming discovered a nickel-metal/nickel-oxide structure that turns out to be more active than pure nickel metal or pure nickel oxide alone,” Dai said. “This novel structure favors hydrogen electrocatalysis, but we still don’t fully understand the science behind it.”

The nickel/nickel-oxide catalyst significantly lowers the voltage required to split water, which could eventually save hydrogen producers billions of dollars in electricity costs, according to Gong. His next goal is to improve the durability of the device.

“The electrodes are fairly stable, but they do slowly decay over time,” he said. “The current device would probably run for days, but weeks or months would be preferable. That goal is achievable based on my most recent results.”

The researchers also plan to develop a water splitter than runs on electricity produced by solar energy.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles, buildings and storing renewable energy on the grid,” said Dai. “We’re very glad that we were able to make a catalyst that’s very active and low cost. This shows that through nanoscale engineering of materials we can really make a difference in how we make fuels and consume energy.”

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Matt

“Splitting water to make hydrogen requires no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases.” – Soooooo, they get the energy from unicorn farts?

M Seward

Too good to be true? I hope not but….

William Handler

Changing the catalysts should not change the energy usage. It still takes energy to produce the hydrogen that you then burn. Not sure how this could then save billions, but I guess it might save billions of dollars of money spent on platinum catalysts when you produce many billions of dollars worth of fuel over a long time???

Huh. One of the first articles in a long time that doesn’t contain the term “model” anywhere.
Wonder what I need to do to run my 383 1969 Camaro on Hydrogen…and will it impact the torque? 🙂
Jim

M Courtney

This sounds believable to me.
And it is useful.
Imagine fitting a water splitter to a wind turbine and then oxidising the O2 when the electricity is required.
This could be very big if it’s as economical as they say.

Dave

I’ve long thought it was practical to use a photovoltaic panel as the source of electricity for electrolysis of water. But the problem is the explosive nature of hydrogen. Somehow, the storage of hydrogen at home needs to be dummy proofed to avoid a quintupling of house fires. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Stephen Richards

Not even a twist on the old school experiment. Just the most inane piece of science publicity ever. And that really is saying something.

LeeHarvey

So producing hydrogen from methane produces CO2?
Well, what about producing metallic iron, metallic nickel, and that cute little AAA cell? I suppose they just get miracled into existence by good intentions?

Ah, the never-say-die hydrogen proponents. Massive infrastructure required, which in a likelhood would be far from complete by the time a practical battery shows up and makes it all totally and hopelessly obsolete. I note that zero economic analysis has been carried out to estimate costs.
As I recall, hydrogen in your car’s fuel tank must be continuously bled off. How much from a population of 250 million vehicles does that amount to going into the atmosphere and what would be the effect of all that hydrogen?

Alan Robertson

jimmaine says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:00 am
“Wonder what I need to do to run my 383 1969 Camaro on Hydrogen…”
____________________
MOPAR in a Chevy?

First Law of Thermodynamics.

Michael D

When I first saw this I thought it was April Fools – Stanford doing experiments that they saw at Science World kid’s zone? But I guess the point is that they only need one battery, rather than two in series. I’m thinking it might be the fuel cell required to efficiently use the H2 that will drive the price, however.

Stephana

If you want to scale this up I could sell you a couple Kwatt to Mwatt DC drive which we use for converting 3 phase AC to DC. We have been doing this for plating and Al production for over a century.

Martin S

So is this good, bad, stupid etc ?
Arent they telling us theres not enough water, how does that mesh with using large amounts to make hydrogen? And what about the fact that its rather explosive. Is every wind and solar farm going to house its own Hindenburgian hydrogen generation plant now?

Alan Robertson

Col Mosby says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:05 am
As I recall, hydrogen in your car’s fuel tank must be continuously bled off. How much from a population of 250 million vehicles does that amount to going into the atmosphere and what would be the effect of all that hydrogen?
___________________________
Probably about the same effect as burning the natural gas/fossil fuel would have. You’d get X molecules of water.

M Courtney says:
” Imagine fitting a water splitter to a wind turbine and then oxidising the O2 when the electricity is required. This could be very big if it’s as economical as they say.”
They didn’t say what the economics were.
A very complicated procedure that if far more efficiently done using batteries.
Regardless of the storage capacities, wind power remains unreliable – no or low wind means
no or insignificant power, which not only can outlast the energy contained in storage but presents the problem of how to restore energy storage levels when the wind reappears and also produce
usable power. Can’t do both, which means the loss of wind power would extend well beyond the loss of wind resources.

Doug Jones

Hydrogen is a great fuel for upper stages of launch vehicles, and a synthesized-on-demand reagent used in oil refineries… and for everything else it sucks. Improving the efficiency of electrolysis is nice, but insignificant since almost all hydrogen is generated from natural gas via the water shift reaction.

littlepeaks

When I was in high school, I liked doing chemistry experiments in the basement (I later became a chemist). I liked making oxygen because of its reactive chemical properties (I really wanted to become an exothermic chemist, but it wasn’t to be – LOL). I always had problems with the choice of electrodes (platinum was the electrode of choice and I couldn’t afford it). If I used nails, you’d get hydrogen from one and ferric (or ferrous) hydroxide on the other one. Same with copper (copper hydroxide instead of oxygen). So the electrochemical reaction would erode one of the electrodes. My only success was by removing the graphite electrodes from flashlight batteries (D-cells) and heating them on the stove until they were red hot, to remove all the paste and other impurities that I could. These worked reasonably well.

mikeishere

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles..”
Yeah, what could go wrong carrying around a lot of hydrogen? http://www.history.com/s3static/video-thumbnails/AETN-History_Prod/73/828/History_Speeches_6000_Eyewitness_Hindenberg_Disaster_still_624x352.jpg

beng

***
atthemurph says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:07 am
First Law of Thermodynamics.
***
Right. You’ll never get as much energy from burning the hydrogen as you used to split the water.

David C. Greene

Remember the Hindenburg!

Alan Robertson

A full Hydrogen tank = charged battery.

the research claims two things
““This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.”
1. the use of non-precious metals
2. splitting at a low voltage
Read the comments above. Note the snark. Note the dismissive tone of the commenters.
Note that few address the real science in this piece.
As for the practical applications?
don’t under estimate engineers. many above do.

Sal Minella

“Most of these vehicles will run on fuel manufactured at large industrial plants that produce hydrogen by combining very hot steam and natural gas, an energy-intensive process that releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
Splitting water to make hydrogen requires no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases. But scientists have yet to develop an affordable, active water splitter with catalysts capable of working at industrial scales.”
These two paragraphs from the article seem to contradict one another. The hot steam must come from somewhere? When the hydrogen is liberated, is not carbon dioxide a product? Isn’t there energy involved in compressing the hydrogen for transport and handling?
So, on the one hand, the natural gas could be used directly using it’s stored energy in the most efficient way to power a vehicle. Or, the gas could be processed with superheated steam (using a great deal of energy and producing CO2) to produce hydrogen, the hydrogen would then be compressed (using a lot more energy), the hydrogen is then combined with oxygen to produce electricity (another loss in efficiency) to move the vehicle. And, this process is called “zero emission” and, somehow, a step forward?
The natural gas is consumed either way. CO2 is produced either way. More natural gas is needed when electrolysis is in the mix and nothing is gained pollution-wise. Why is this so innovative?

Paul

“Remember the Hindenburg!”
And the mechanical energy in the 10,000 PSI storage tanks.

Gamecock

So how often will I have to change that single AAA 1.5-volt battery in my Hyundai?

Alan Robertson says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:06 am
jimmaine says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:00 am
“Wonder what I need to do to run my 383 1969 Camaro on Hydrogen…”
____________________
MOPAR in a Chevy?
———————————————————————————————————
No. 383 stroker. It’s a 350 bored with a 400 crank.

Alan Robertson says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:06 am
jimmaine says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:00 am
“Wonder what I need to do to run my 383 1969 Camaro on Hydrogen…”
____________________
MOPAR in a Chevy?
A 350 block with a 400 crank gives you a 383 Chevy. So it must not be the original engine in his 69 Camaro.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles…”
————
Oh, the humanity!!!

yoreadme

@ Alan
I’m pretty sure you get a 383 from “stroking” a Chevy 350. The MOPAR 383 was a big block beast tho!!

Does all this work with “dirty” river water or sea water or does it require purified H2O?

So the only byproduct of hydrogen fuel cell cars is water, right?
Well, has any of these HFC car advocates out there bothered to notice that it tends to get rather cold here in the upper Midwest and the snow belt states during the winter months? I mean, you know, like below freezing? And that the freezing temps tend to stay below freezing quite a bit until spring?
The last time I checked, fresh water still had this nasty tendency to switch to a very slippery solid state at or below 32 degrees. Old Man Winter makes our roads slippery enough as it is during and in the immediate aftermath of a snowstorm around here. The last thing we need are HFC cars all other the place adding to the problem.
I realize that many if not all HFC car pushers probably live in the warmer sunbelt states (like California) where they don’t need to worry about this sort of thing for the most part. I am seriously considering spending my winters in Florida myself someday. Many if not most snowbelt state residents though don’t have the luxury of doing that if they haven’t reached retirement age yet.
Leave it greenie academia types to invent an alternative to the fossil fuel powered automobile that just isn’t all that practical for a good chunk of the country.

mikeishere

Paul says: August 22, 2014 at 8:28 am “And the mechanical energy in the 10,000 PSI storage tanks.”
Big yup!

Sal Minella

PS I posed the same questions as in my post above to the lead engineer at GM’s fuel cell research center here in upstate NY. They would trot out a fuel cell vehicle and show it at a lot of local car shows and cruise nights and tout the zero emission wonder of hydrogen fuel cells. I challenged the engineer at one of these shows with the efficiency calculations for each step of the process for both cases (direct use of fuel or the multi-step electrolysis route) and she threw up her hands and conceded that the hydrogen fuel-cell was not efficient, non-polluting, or practical. I asked why so much time and money was being spent on research and the reply that she gave was essentially that it “was government funded so, why not?” Bottom line, they shut down there operations last year after a couple of explosions at the fueling terminal and, presumably, because the government money ran out.

Sal Minella

A link to the hydrogen explosion story – http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/08/hydrogen-refueling-station-explodes/ – even though the story blames an “arch” for the mishap, I believe that it was an “arc”.

Unmentionable

Great news, hope it’s economical and cheaper than gasoline per km. Hydrogen power minus the investment cost of (non) fusion – sounds good.
In the end the holy grail is room temp superconductors. If we could make those out of common industrial metals humanity will have very bright future ahead. If there was one thing I could devote a cool $trillion to it would be cracking that one. I would more than happily use all the ‘rescue’ funds wasted on the still criminal infested global zombie banks to crack that one open.

latecommer2014

I don’t understand the “new” in this article…..I have been running H on demand augmentation on my 1964 Chevy pickup for several years now. Roughly 3 + mph improvement. I use stainless steel coils attached to the ignition system so production of H (and O) is used as it is made. I immersed the coils in distiller water in a mounted “Bell” jar and the H is fed directly into the carb. After an adjustment the carb handled it well.
Note: I understand I am using battery energy, and make no claims on economy or energy balance.
I have run many tests with system off/on and am 97% confident that MPG is positively effected.

yam

beng says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:18 am
“Right. You’ll never get as much energy from burning the hydrogen as you used to split the water.”
What makes the process viable is not the amount of energy used but the cost of that energy.

Gamecock

Steven Mosher says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:25 am
don’t under estimate engineers. many above do.
==============
I’ll snark if I want to.
Pls note: platinum has been available for decades. Higher voltage has been available for decades. Yet none of the FG engineers could do anything with it. In other words, as far as practical applications is concerned, nothing has changed.

Friends:
The article is hype and tripe.
Hydrogen is spontaneously explosive when released to air, it is difficult to store, and it corrodes or embrittles metals. It is extremely dangerous as a transport fuel: vehicles would be traveling bombs and almost every crash would provide an explosion.
Importantly, it is not possible for electrolysis of water to provide hydrogen as cheaply as a water gas shift (WGS). This is because the fuel used to power the hydrolysis is more than the fuel used to produce the same amount of hydrogen from WGS.
The water gas shift is a chemical reaction which reacts steam (i.e. boiled water; H2O) and carbon (C) of a fossil fuel to provide hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO)
H2O + C → H2 + CO (ΔH = +131 kJ/mol)
The heat to power the reaction is provided by partially burning some of the fossil fuel and by oxidising the CO.
O2 + C → CO2 (ΔH = −393.5 kJ/mol) in a 2 stage process
O2 + 2C → 2CO then O2 + 2CO → 2CO2
When a hydrocarbon (e.g. natural gas methane, CH4) is water gas shifted then the hydrogen of the methane is released.
Richard

Unmentionable

Regarding the safety or issues of new developmental technologies, there were uncountable accidents and deaths in the development of aircraft and their systems, and those accidents still occur. We still fly though because it has incrementally developed into the safest form of travel. The wowsers and naysayers would have given up too early.

klem

I think they used to run hydrogen powered buses in British Columbia. Everything was going along fine until the public realized that they cost about $50 a mile to run. Even the notorious BC greenies thought that saving the planet wasn’t worth $50 a mile. !

Dan Hawkins

Elemental hydrogen is capable of escaping from Earth. Large scale use of it as a “fuel” is not wise. Burning it in its combined state works just fine.

Francisco

For a change, I do think this is a step in the right direction. It is nowhere at commercial scale obviously. The energy and economical balances are yet a far cry away. Properly combined with other energy sources, such as nuclear and the dreaded fossil fuels where practical, these type of approaches can give us a lot more flexible energy dependancy.
But if the oh-all-mighty politicians keep wasting resources in CAGW stuff then there will be little left for other opportunities to be developed within a life’s timeframe.

oops!
typo alert
should be
then O2 + 2CO → 2CO2
Sorry.

Unmentionable

“public realized that they cost about $50 a mile”
Depends how many fare-paying passengers you have and whether the economy of scale is developed to drive the costs down. The battery change for a Gen 2 Prius is now about half the cost they originally were. What’s the mileage of a conventional bus with the weight of 50 people on it? Not [too] good I suspect. Economics of scale would probably close any such gap rather quickly. How many blew up? None I bet.

Mac the Knife

Alan Robertson says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:06 am
jimmaine says:
August 22, 2014 at 8:00 am
“Wonder what I need to do to run my 383 1969 Camaro on Hydrogen…”
____________________
MOPAR in a Chevy?

Or a ‘stroked’ GM 350 small block.

mikeishere

Unmentionable says:August 22, 2014 at 8:58 am ” We still fly though because it has incrementally developed into the safest form of travel.”
Well that depends on whether the denominator is utility or time. Time wise, commercial air travel has about 10 times more fatalities per million hours than car travel. It is just that we spend far more than that 10X amount of time in a car than a plane because you cannot fly to most of the places you need to go such as a grocery store.

Dermot O'Logical

Sheesh, there’s some ignorance and dogma being demonstrated by comments here.
If I remember my high school lessons correctly, the potential gap between H20 and H/O2 is 1.23V. The reality is that sticking 1.23V across electrodes in water doesn’t get you anywhere because you need to do extra work to get the reaction – this extra work is the overpotential, and this is where you get losses in the system. Platinum catalysts reduce this overpotential.
What’s been achieved / claimed is a new catalyst based on dirt cheap and ready available non-precious materials that significantly reduces the “overpotential” needed to actually split the water molecule, to an extent that a 1.5V potential (from a common battery, for example) is sufficient to initiate the splitting.
The pay-dirt here is an increase in the efficiency of electrolysis which makes H2 more commercially viable, perhaps along the lines of M Courtney’s comment that you can level out the supply of a windmill by producing H2 and then using a fuel cell to generate power at a predictable rate, at a stroke eliminating some of the major drawbacks of windmills. People smarter than I will know of better uses.
There are many sound engineering reasons why high pressure H2 is poor for powering domestic transport, but that’s not the only way to use H2. If it can be produced efficiently and reliably then it becomes a fine contender for being included in the energy mix of the grid. Even though I don’t subscribe to the “C” of the CAGW theory, burning less black goop is still a good thing.
These guys are doing real science, and appear to have come up with something useful, or at least very interesting. Kudos.

old engineer

““Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles, …” said Dai. ”
Well, that’s absolutely NOT true. Hydrogen can be used as vehicle fuel, but it is not ideal, and there are lots of engineering problems to be solved before it can be used. First there is the problem of storing enough hydrogen on board for the vehicle to have practical range per refueling. I haven’t seen a real good solution to this problem yet. Then there is the problem that hydrogen is such a small molecule, that it leaks out of fittings that are only air tight.
The “Hindenburg complex” is a non-problem however. A study years ago showed that the Hindenburg fire was caused by the coating on the fabric skin of the craft. Hydrogen is so light that it will dissipate rapidly in air, so that there is only a small area around a leak where the hydrogen concentration is within the flammability limit.
Then, of course, there is the problem this thread addresses: producing the hydrogen in the first place. The solution that is my personal favorite was proposed a number of years ago by Chrysler Corp. Their system produced hydrogen on-board using a mixture of Borax (sodium borohydride) and water. It required a spent liquid tank that would have to be pumped out when refueling, but the system was quite ingenious.