Inexpensive catalyst for producing hydrogen under real-world conditions found


January 11, 2013

Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)

Researchers have found an inexpensive and efficient catalyst that can produce hydrogen for fuel cells at room temperature (Photo: Fezile Lakadamyali)

Hydrogen has been hailed as the fuel of the future, but producing it cleanly using platinum as a catalyst is simply too costly to service the world's energy needs. On the flipside, producing hydrogen with fossil fuels not only releases CO2 as a byproduct, but is unsustainable, negating hydrogen's green potential. However, hydrogen may yet make good on its promise thanks to a group of scientists at the University of Cambridge.

They found that cobalt can function as an efficient catalyst at room temperature in pH neutral water surrounded by oxygen. Compared to platinum, cobalt is relatively abundant and therefore inexpensive – a recipe that could make all the difference if we're going to complete a transition to alternative energy sources over the next 50 years.

"Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve H2 efficiently in water and under aerobic conditions," explains Dr. Erwin Reisner, head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at the University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry. "However, such conditions are essential for use in developing green hydrogen as a future energy source under industrially relevant conditions."

Currently, the researchers are developing a solar water splitting device that would yield just H2 and O2 – clean fuel and oxygen. "We are excited about our results and we are optimistic that we will successfully assemble a sunlight-driven water splitting system soon," writes Masaru Kato and Fezile Lakadamyali, co-authors of the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition in August 2012.

However, cobalt is not a magic bullet. "Many hurdles such as the rather poor stability of the catalyst remain to be addressed," cautions Dr. Reisner. "But our finding provides a first step to produce ‘green hydrogen’ under relevant conditions."

Other groups are working on the same problem, from transferring solar energy to hydrogen for storage to a group that says it has produced hydrogen from sunlight and ethanol. With any luck, future trips to the pump won't be for petrol.

Source: University of Cambridge

About the Author
Jason Falconer Jason is a freelance writer based in central Canada with a background in computer graphics. He has written about hundreds of humanoid robots on his website Plastic Pals and is an avid gamer with an unsightly collection of retro consoles, cartridges, and controllers. All articles by Jason Falconer

hydrogen has been separated by using enzymes recently, was separated using palladium some time back and even I have documents outlining methods dating back into the 70's, storage has been resolved using a variety of products isn't it about time we get this happening.

Graham HomeMaintenance

Agreed, StWils, not to mention certain bloggers who undoubtedly own stock in oil. They know who they are and they don't fool any of us.

Fritz Menzel

It's the inexpensive part that that's key - palladium & enzymes aren't cheap.

Alex Angel

How many kilowatt hours of electricity must be put into the water to get a kilowatt worth of hydrogen out?

Hydrogen is incompatible with the current infrastructure. The cost of building the hydrogen infrastructure is mindbogglingly.

Even at room temperature hydrogen makes some metals brittle.

Hydrogen is bulky for the energy contained and we can not build a tank that it will not migrate through. It must be stored at extremely high pressure or liquified at ultra cryogenic temperatures for useful storage.


My question: Why H2? Are there other fuels, combustibles that can be converted to rotating power by other means than internal combustion, or even here to for unrealized systems wee should be seeking? Can Extreme High Voltages effect chemical changes that can yield electric current upon reversing? At high voltages and light weights?Did we lose much when Tesla was bypassed? Will the massive, on a scale of X 100, Asian intelligentsia reach into these regions, make discoveries before the western world can? Static still grossly under-explored? Americans seeking liquid fuels or Gaseous fuels in an electric bullet train, Thorium fissioning 21st century?

Bruce Miller

Hydrogen can be stored in metal hydrides usefully which can be built into a tank, there is a hydrogen fuel system that was developed that used this as the fuel tank in a car, it requires some heat to get the hydrogen back out but its nothing to complicated.

Hydrogen is such a good fuel source because it can be made from water, and when it burns its non polluting and will form back into water in the exhaust. Not saying that its the best fuel or if this breakthrough will change things and make hydrogen more availible, likely not, but its still really important as one more step in the right direction. It could be helpful for specific situations and niche areas where because of this it will be a cheaper source of energy then typical energy sources(ie remote settlements, or running specialized equipment).

Im glad people are still researching all avenues.


HYDROGEN is the key fuel for space travel. i think we are not thinking big enuff, we havent yet determined if this is a box let alone trying to think outside of it. there is mountains of research on splitting water but we are still thinking inside the box though.


re; Arahant

Hydrogen particularly from water is not an energy source it is an energy carrier the energy source is the power supply that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen.

I would need some proof that hydrogen does not migrate out of the metal hydride storage medium and the weight of the metal will do wonders for your fuel economy.

The only place hydrogen fueled vehicles will ever make sense is in mines and isolated locations where electricity is dirt cheap.


I think the biggest problem is the big oil companies. They have a tendency to gobble up startups like this and then kill them off.


I think many of you are missing the point of this article.

The hydrogen is produced by sunlight using the cobalt catalyst and does not need large quantities of electricity.

If this can be done economically it could the hydrogen can be used as a fuel directly or made in to LPG which is already used as a fuel for motor transport.

Stephen Colbourne

I'd wonder if boron would do the same thing?

Hydrogen is not really a good 'burning' fuel-though the brown's gas is decent. It kind of implodes when burnt. Very hot though (2500F +/-).

As a octane booster it works very well. Might be worthwhile for them to look at this process with methane from natural gas for the hydrogen (CH4 vs H2O-covalent vs. anionic). The problem as an octane booster is that the SI engines would need add'l compression and spark advance to take advantage of it and would 'meltdown' without it. I'd wonder about a LNG deisel with a hydrogen boost. (BTU per LB...).

Current methods that I know are 240hz pulsed DC, acid bath with nucleate sites of St/St or nickel oxide (platimnum or palladium or iridium ...). (drop some aluminum in PotAsh... ) Battery technology has for decades tried to address the exact opposite (nix the hydrogen) and fuel cell technology has been affected by it.


Whining about infrastructure requirements is not new. There were complaints about the amount of timber and wire required for the telegraph and the unemployment that would be visited upon all the men, boys and horses by the rise of this silly "writing with little dots". About fifty years later the same noise was made about using telegraph wires to "talk", and how even more timber & wire would be needed to put a phone everywhere. These complaints were made in a country rich with timber & mineral resources. The telegraph & telephone were huge business opportunities. The CEO of Digital Equipment Company once said he could not think of a reason for anyone to have a computer on their desks or in their homes. DEC does not exist anymore and I do not care who the CEO was. The best efforts to knock alternative energy opportunities are being made by Coal, Oil,& Banking companies, and their Billionaire owners who do not want any competition.


re; StWils

building the infrastructure for telegraph and later telephone gave new capabilities where as building the infrastructure for hydrogen just gives us access to expensive fuel.

Coal and oil have nothing to fear from market competition it is government action that they are fighting.


no need for fancy new storage and distribution infrastructure. most of the Hydrogen On Demand implementations i've seen are scalable to point of use. make it when you need it, don't make it when you don't. no storage risks or cost hits that way. the oil companies, etc. don't care what they sell as long as they do the selling. don't fall for the Big Oil business model in which they control the distribution and therefore metering. make it yourself and use it yourself. for elaboration:


re; kurt

Most of the worlds electrical grids are already stressed demand is going up. Adding devises that convert electricity into chemical energy at about 50% efficiency is not a real bright idea and where are you going to get the water in drought ridden areas.


Hi Slowburn. You do seem to have a thing against hydrogen dont you.

The point of this article is about making hydrogen cheaply from a free energy source. If we make hydrogen from unlimited and free sunlight, and can keep running costs low then who cares about the efficiency of production? Sunlight, aside from radioactive elements, is the primary source of energy on this earth. Why bother with any intermediary if such as wind or tidal or hydro & hydrocarbons if we can avoid it? And that is before we even consider the environmental impacts of the secondary sources of energy.

And why would you combust it. It makes more sense to put it through a fuel cell.

I agree, storage is a problem. Storing it as elemental hydrogen is stupid, but storing it in some other form to create a storage mechanism which easily releases the hydrogen when required at appropriate energy densities is the obvious solution. And I believe we have the intellect to make this feasible. Or you just make the storage mechanism itself acceptable to the fuel cell and recover storage medium along with the oxidized hydrogen after the release of hydrogen post fuel cell.

A world using hydrogen as an energy storage medium is the future. We should be making huge reserves of hydrogen now in anticipation.


I think DEC may still "exist" as part of HP-Compact. By the way Jobs left HP in 1976 after they turned down his proposal to build an PC...short time later HP changed their minds and made more or less an IBM compatible.

But for every "apple" story there are hundreds of futuristic projects that went kaput for being too early...including a digital assistant from Apple.

In spite of CM's suggestion about Solar power is an example of a power source that is not free except to those who refuse to believe in economics. And many 100s of $billions of govt subsidies worldwide have not made it competitive except in some off grid situatons. Making H2 takes energy and using solar power to power its formation does not change the situation. However, if the conversion cycle was efficient for making H2 and then turning it back to electric power, the largest problem with solar might have an economical solution...that is the problem of solar not being 24/7. I see no evidence that this is the case or will be for a very long time.


Converting infrastructure is much more a problem for current infrastructure than new infrastructure. As an example, I read the history of "historic" US 66 (also called Route 66). It was built by all private money. A bunch of businessmen seeing the future of transcontinental travel decided to create a consortium that mapped out a road from Chicago to the west coast. They then bought the land along that path, establishing at intervals gas stations, shops, restaurants. They created a bunch of monopolies. (The older people amongst us can still remember signs along the road like, "Gas and food in 15 miles. Last chance for 100 miles.") They made a killing financially until the US Interstate system was created.

Those that get in on the early part of the new infrastructure will do very well also. Those that cling to the current infrastructure will be like buggy and whip manufacturers.

The biggest difference about a new hydrogen based technology, is it would probably be about 1/2-3/4 decentralized. Unlike gasoline, a hydrogen system with storage could be implemented residentially. Much like the idea of the electric automobile, people could make hydrogen for use for local travel. They could easily have storage facilities that sufficient for 3-500 miles travel, allowing them to pressurize a vehicle to give driving ranges of 250-350 miles. The only real need for fueling stations would be for long trips (so stations on the highways). Communities would still need fueling stations but mostly for tourists (including family type visits), police, ambulances, etc. where local fuel production would probably be insufficient to sustain usage.

I have actually read of a working system. Yes, they have hydrogen leakage. They had a double walled system. The hydrogen that leaked from the main (inner tank) was used to power the a hydrogen burning pump to fill the inner tank. The system used solar and wind generated electricity to perform the hydrolysis. They of course had a highly modified vehicle to burn hydrogen and to store the fuel. I seem to remember the entire truck area was a hydrogen tank.


re; cm

I have a problem with having to pay for expensive systems that don't perform as well as the existing systems. If it is built by private industry without subsidies I'm all for it.


In Australia our last onshore refinery is about to be closed down from old age and the last I heard we will be getting fuel shipped in from Singapore. I can see the headlines now "Storm pushes petrol to $5/L". Infrastructure is constantly being renewed, so that arguement is a bit soft. Wait til you're paying $5.50 a gallon in cities like we are. The best bit is LPG is like water here, but we have to pay the 'global demand' price


Since it's a gas - piping it around would seem like a good idea? I expect it would use less energy to pump it through a pipe, than gets lost when electricity goes through wires?


hi slowburn,

i agree, no need to stress the electric grid more. that's the beauty of HOD, it's made at the point of consumption, hydrogen on-demand. regarding distributing water, HOD fired desalinization plant can supply fresh water to pipe to drought stricken areas. compare the cost of a pipeline full of water whose only failure mode is a leak with the cost of the alternatives and it seems to me to be a potentially very economical and low impact solution worth investigating.


i'd like to see this work also. many hurdles is the key though...

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