Computer model indicates promising new catalyst for generating hydrogen from water


February 3, 2013

Research conducted at Princeton and Rutgers Universities offers hope of synthetic catalysts that could produce hydrogen from water (Photo: Shutterstock)

Research conducted at Princeton and Rutgers Universities offers hope of synthetic catalysts that could produce hydrogen from water (Photo: Shutterstock)

Hydrogen is often hailed as a promising environmentally-friendly fuel source, but it is also relatively expensive to produce. However, new research conducted at Princeton University and Rutgers University poses the opportunity to produce hydrogen from water at a lower cost and more efficiently than previously thought possible.

The research, led by Princeton chemistry professor Annabella Selloni, takes its inspiration from nature – or more specifically, a bacterium that produces hydrogen from water by using enzymes known as di-iron hydro­ge­nases. Selloni and her fellow scientists made use of a computer model to work out how they could incorporate this function of the enzymes into practical synthetic catalysts, in order to enable humans to produce hydrogen from water.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Selloni and her co-authors detail how they made changes to existing water-to-hydrogen catalysts, which are often blighted by a susceptibility to oxygen poisoning. While aiming to improve the stability of the structure in water, the team happily fell upon a catalyst which also appears to be tolerant to oxygen, and without sacrificing efficiency.

The new artificial catalyst could be produced from abundant and inexpensive components like iron, offering a potentially cheap method of producing hydrogen.

The next step for Selloni and her team is to move the research beyond computer models into the real world, and to this end, they hope to eventually produce a working catalyst which produces vast quantities of inexpensive hydrogen for use as a fuel source.

Source: Princeton Journal Watch

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Adam Williams Adam scours the globe from his home in North Wales in order to bring the best of innovative architecture and sustainable design to the pages of Gizmag. Most of his spare time is spent dabbling in music, tinkering with old Macintosh computers and trying to keep his even older VW bus on the road. All articles by Adam Williams

Solar PV seems to be quite a good way of producing hydrogen.

David Clarke

As plentiful as hydrogen is, extracting it efficiently has been the major hurdle. I hope this translates well, even if only for commercial/industrial use where infrastructure and captive routes are the norm.

Bruce H. Anderson

Another 1 that will die a slow death. You just cant make money from water unless you are like Coke A Cola that own 95% of the water market in America now.

Ulrich Duenzl

Interesting. Hydrogen storage is a bigger issue IMO but I've watched progress in catalysing the production with interest.

@David Colton Clarke: I agree with the solar panels comment - my prediction has been for decades that eventually every piece of roofing material on sale will come with Photo Voltaic panels imbedded and every house will be making hydrogen whenever it has excess energy production. The work on H2 production however is aimed at reducing the energy required to split the water, much of which is lost. With PVs getting cheaper, it won't matter so much but it seems like both technologies are heading towards a happy convergence.


Nice. As long as everyone understands that producing hydrogen from water is an energy storage strategy not an energy producing strategy. Wherever the energy comes from to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen it will have to be more than the energy you get from burning it back into water (First Law of Thermodynamics). There are a LOT of people out there who don't know this! Look up "HHO" if you want to see for yourself.


Please update the article to make it clear that these catalysts do not make hydrogen by themselves. You still need to use another form of energy to break water down to hydrogen and oxygen. If you had an cell with water in it and two electrodes and added the catalyst, you would be able to make more hydrogen with a lower voltage, and be able to pass more current through the cell. This allows making hydrogen faster, but in no way is a free ride. Think of it as a process improvement.

Have a look at "A molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water" if you have journal access. Nature 464, 1329–1333 (29 April 2010)

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