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This New Material Could Help Produce Cheap Hydrogen From Water

It's now a lot easier to turn water into fuel.

This New Material Could Help Produce Cheap Hydrogen From Water

[Photo: Flickr user Beatrice Murch]

Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen isn’t that hard, but it is expensive, in part due to the precious metals needed for the catalyzers used in the process. A new method, which uses cheap electrocatalysts to do the job, could make hydrogen fuel a practical alternative to fossil fuels.

A team from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, led by Professor Licheng Sun, has discovered a new material that can be used as a catalyst for water splitting. This nickel and vanadium-based material is way more efficient than other non-precious metal catalysts, according to the researchers. A paper detailing the process has just been published in the journal Nature.

"It works very well—even beyond our expectations," study co-author Ke Fan said in a news release. "No doubt this material can greatly expand the scope of non-precious metal elements of electrocatalysts, and it opens new areas for water splitting."

Making hydrogen from water is a great fuel source for fairly obvious reasons. Water is plentiful, and when burned, the hydrogen recombines with oxygen to give off mostly water vapor, which essentially means that it is zero-emissions. The problem is making it cheaply enough, because a) you need to use electricity to split the water in the first place, and that electricity has to come from somewhere; and b) you needed a catalyst made from something like platinum to help the reaction along.

But hydrogen packs a lot of energy in a small space, so if the splitting can be done cheaply and efficiently enough, then hydrogen makes for a great clean "battery." Imagine splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable energy like solar or wind power, and you’re onto something. Low-cost catalysts like this one could make this process practical and affordable for mass manufacture.

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