Emission-Free Hydrogen May Now Be Truly Emission-Free

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The problem with emission-free hydrogen fuel is that the process of making it is definitely not emission-free.

Hydrogen-powered devices-–cars, mostly -run on hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gas emissions.

That could be a major consideration for eco-conscious American consumers as more and more cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells come to market.

Not to worry, according to a team of scientists at Stanford University. The researchers have developed a low-cost, emission-free mechanism that uses a 1.5-volt battery to split water into its constituent elements of oxygen and hydrogen.

The team, led by Hongjie Dai, a Stanford professor of chemistry, uses an AAA "penlight" battery to split hydrogen from oxygen by running an electric current through two electrodes, a process called electrolysis. The electrodes are made of inexpensive iron and nickel, not costly catalysts made of precious metals.

"This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low," Dai said. "It's quite remarkable." Dai's research team reported its findings in the Aug. 22 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

What's intriguing about hydrogen fuel cell technology is that it reverses the water-splitting process. To produce the electrical energy that powers the car, the cell gradually mixes its load of hydrogen gas with atmospheric oxygen. The only waste is water vapor, not the toxic gases of a combustion engine that relies on gasoline.

Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are already available for lease in Southern California, and more are on the way. Yet most won't operate as cleanly as advertised because they'll use fuel manufactured at plants that isolate hydrogen by combining steam and natural gas, which not only emits toxic carbon dioxide into the environment, but also uses up large amounts of energy.

Splitting water through electrolysis is a clean method of generating hydrogen, but it's expensive – or at least it was until Dai's team developed a method using inexpensive metals on its electrodes and demonstrated that the process can be expanded to an industrial scale.

"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."

Besides being inexpensive, the use of nickel and nickel oxide greatly lowers the voltage needed to split water, which could save billions of dollars in electricity costs for hydrogen producers, according to Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, who discovered the new water-splitter method.

Gong, who co-authored the report, said his next chore is to improve the durability of the water-splitter. "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."

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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 11:08 AM, rgsltg50 wrote:

    The article is extremely misleading in that it implies that a useful amount of hydrogen fuel can be produced with a AAA battery. The electrical energy that goes into producing the hydrogen will always be more than the electrical energy derived from using the hydrogen in a fuel cell. The plant that produces the hydrogen will be connected to a coal/natural gas/nuclear electrical energy plant.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:00 PM, Albertico wrote:

    ^I second what the guy above me said.

    Hydrogen is and will remain 2nd to pure electric for years to come, it is simply put a "compromise".

    Compromise that you require and energy electricity to create it and convert it, store it and deliver it...

    Why would anyone want to do all that when you can create electricity cheaply and directly deliver to your home and car via power lines with 90% energy efficiency to the wheels.

    Hydrogen consumes twice as much energy per mile traveled than pure electric because of it's creation/conversion process.

    Even if the energy used to make hydrogen was Renewable like Solar or Hydro, you'd still be wasting a ton of that energy in the compression process that is required to use Hydrogen as a fuel in your car...

    This is without even taking into account the safety risks of handling hydrogen because of it's all too known explosive potential. Alas the Hydrogen infrastructure is also nonexistent so you really cannot drive them anywhere besides a couple places in Cali.

    Still I wait for an article or study that proves otherwise

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:22 PM, privatedk wrote:

    And the batteries to store electrical energy in cars are getting better all the time. Some estimates say the energy densities of todays best Li-ion technologies are on track to double or triple within the next few years. Why bother with a less efficient hydrogen fuel cell process requiring a huge and otherwise unnecessary infrastructure investment?

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:25 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    And of course, neither the electric power nor the batteries nor the devices to conduct electrolysis are "emission free" not even solar not even wind not even... "emission free" is a myth pursued by the residents of Wonderland as in Alice through the looking glass...

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:34 PM, Fooloprunes wrote:

    Don't forget you can electrolyze hydrogen from water using solar or wind energy when those systems have excess capacity. In fact, it's quite a good way of storing renewable energy that cannot be consumed immediately.

    You can tell when wind farms have excess capacity because a lot of the turbines are stopped.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:42 PM, midnighteye wrote:

    We used to use copper and zinc electrodes when I was at middle school. We didn't realize we were scientific ground breakers because we weren't. This entire article is nonsense and seems to have been written by someone who doesn't understand that energy can not be created out of nothing, if you split water into its component atoms you will use the same amount of energy that you will get by recombining them, no matter how that is done, except that you will always lose a little along the way, so you would be better off using the penlight battery directly to power some tiny thing than producing hydrogen with it.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 12:57 PM, Beenthere wrote:

    Where do these authors come from? I know the US educational system is bad in science, but this is ridiculous.

    My little boy did exactly that, turning water into hydrogen and oxygen using a battery, some wire, and two electrodes (graphite, which is cheaper than the metals) and a little salt. He did this less than a week after he turned 4 years old.

    Emission free? Hardly. Someone has to make the battery and throw it away.

    A AAA alkaline battery contains about 5KJ and costs about $0.60, or $0.12 per kJ. Your power company charges about $0.12 per kWhr, which is about $0.00003 per kJ. Go ahead. Use these batteries to convert water to hydrogen, then run your A/C off of a fuel cell. You'll end up spending about $1,200,000 a month for your summer cooling. For comparative purposes, gasoline costs about $0.000024 per kJ (not the same as useable work).

    Where are you going to dump two million batteries a month?

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 1:55 PM, PaulTD wrote:

    Respectfully, Carbon Dioxide is NOT TOXIC!!! Nor is Oxygen, just to preempt the next mindless leap.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 2:36 PM, gotbruce wrote:

    Low cost, more efficient catalysts are a good thing. They could make electrolytically splitting water into H and O cheaper and more energy efficient. No one can however invert the balance between the greater amount of energy required to produce Hydrogen and the lesser amount of energy yielded from it in a fuel cell. That said it would most definitely not be necessary to use fossil fuels or nuclear energy to produce Hydrogen for direct use in vehicles (or as an energy storage medium) as implied in rgslgq50's comment. And the idea that any one would seriously consider using batteries as source of energy to produce hydrogen in anything but a limited experimental setting is just plain silly and a red herring objection to this article. Hydrogen could easily be produced from solar energy or wind energy facilities where such resources are abundant and then piped or otherwise transported to cloudy or less windy areas as an energy source that could be utilized wherever and whenever it is needed. Nuclear and fossil fuel power plants can be run 24 hours a day to produce a constant supply of electricity but so could a Hydrogen power plant that was running on H produced by solar farms that operate only during daylight hours or wind farms that only produce H when the wind blows. Another possible renewable source of H would be tide powered electrolysis plants near our ocean coastlines. Stating that H can only be produced by nuclear or fossil fuel energy is simply untrue and misleading, it is also archaic thinking.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 3:28 PM, mkelly85 wrote:

    The critics are again missing the point. The thesis attempts to prove that this form of electrolysis can be performed using low voltage such as what you'd get from an array of solar panels. A hydrogen station can be completely "off the grid" in the mostly arid Southwest.

    If battery energy density increases over the years, that's great. Without any competing industries, it's not likely that we'd ever see any of those breakthroughs come to market. Let the market determine who the winner is.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 4:29 PM, psiera wrote:

    If you read my book :Solutions for a Better America" by PSiera at amazon book store it describes a clean renewable method of producing Hydrogen (Clean Hydrogen) for use in electric vehicles powered by Fuel cells.

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