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Water splitting research advances renewable energy conversion

Water splitting techniques have been improved by scientists.

A new discovery about extracting hydrogen from water holds a key towards renewable energy viability.

The researchers, led by Washington State University, have developed a catalyst from low-cost materials which perform as well as, or better than, precious metal catalysts when used for the same process.

Energy conversion is the key to the clean energy economy. Because solar and wind sources produce power only intermittently, there is a critical need for ways to store and thereby save the electricity they create.

One of the most promising ideas for storing renewable energy is to use the excess electricity generated from renewables to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The resultant hydrogen can then be fed into fuel-cell vehicles.

“Hydrogen production by electrolysis of water is the greenest way to convert electricity to chemical fuel,” said Junhua Song, a WSU Ph.D. student who synthesized the catalyst and performed most of the experimental work.

Industries have not widely adopted this water splitting process because of the prohibitive cost of precious metal catalysts.

Other methods also require too much energy, or the required materials break down too quickly. The industry standard method involves using fossil-fuel processes to produce hydrogen for fuel cells, releasing the byproduct of harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The WSU research team added nanoparticles of  inexpensive copper to a cobalt-based framework. The new catalyst conducted electricity better than the precious metal catalysts. It produced oxygen more effectively than existing commercial catalysts and produced hydrogen at a comparable rate.

“The research team has provided a new perspective in designing and improving non-precious-metal-based catalysts for hydrogen production,” said professor Yuehe Lin. “This catalyst will pave the way for the development of high-performance, electrolysis-based hydrogen production applications.”

Published in the Advanced Energy Materials journal

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