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Inexpensive metal catalyst discovered for electrolytic production of hydrogen from water


May 3, 2010

The hydrogen economy that may one day replace the hydrocarbon economy came a step closer this week with the announcement that researchers have discovered an inexpensive new proton reduction catalyst - seventy times cheaper than the platinum commonly used now - that can significantly reduce the costs of producing hydrogen using electrolysis to split water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important step was discovered by a team of researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley. "Our catalyst does not require organic additives, and can operate in neutral water, even if it is dirty, and can operate in sea water, the most abundant source of hydrogen on earth and a natural electrolyte," said Hemamala Karunadasa, one of the co-discoverers of this complex. "These qualities make our catalyst ideal for renewable energy and sustainable chemistry."

Karunadasa holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab's Chemical Sciences Division and UC Berkeley's Chemistry Department. She is the lead author of a paper describing this work that appears in the April 29, 2010 issue of the journal Nature, titled "A molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water." Co-authors of this paper were Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long, who also hold joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley.

Hydrogen gas, whether combusted or used in fuel cells to generate electricity, emits only water vapor as an exhaust product, which is why this nation would already be rolling towards a hydrogen economy if only there were hydrogen wells to tap. However, hydrogen gas does not occur naturally and has to be produced.

Nature has developed extremely efficient water-splitting enzymes – called hydrogenases – for use by plants during photosynthesis, however, these enzymes are highly unstable and easily deactivated when removed from their native environment. Human activities demand a stable metal catalyst that can operate under non-biological settings.

Metal catalysts are commercially available, but they are low valence precious metals whose high costs make their widespread use prohibitive. For example, platinum, the best of them, costs some US$2,000 an ounce.

"The basic scientific challenge has been to create earth-abundant molecular systems that produce hydrogen from water with high catalytic activity and stability," Chang says. "We believe our discovery of a molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water without the use of additional acids or organic co-solvents establishes a new chemical paradigm for creating reduction catalysts that are highly active and robust in aqueous media."

The molybdenum-oxo complex that Karunadasa, Chang and Long discovered is a high valence metal with the chemical name of (PY5Me2)Mo-oxo. In their studies, the research team found that this complex catalyzes the generation of hydrogen from neutral buffered water or even sea water with a turnover frequency of 2.4 moles of hydrogen per mole of catalyst per second.

Long says, "This metal-oxo complex represents a distinct molecular motif for reduction catalysis that has high activity and stability in water. We are now focused on modifying the PY5Me ligand portion of the complex and investigating other metal complexes based on similar ligand platforms to further facilitate electrical charge-driven as well as light-driven catalytic processes. Our particular emphasis is on chemistry relevant to sustainable energy cycles."


Sweet-hope it does not take years and years to get to the table-and or bought out and snuffed by large energy corporations and governments-we need this stuff NOW-where is the fast track?

Nick Gencarelle

Like many other breakthroughs, how many decades will it be until this catalyst is actually in use outside the laboratory?

Dan Linder

This won\'t make any difference in H2 use as H2 has more serious problems beside electrodes. My EV goes 4-8x\'s as far on the same energy as a H2 car does at a much lower costs for the equipment.


Gee, we will soon be able to use mass quantities of water for fuel. Um... what about all that talk about water being a scarce resource and that there will be shortages in the not too distant future? Maybe we should find a way to make fuel out of waste products, or from fingernail clippings or something.


@kwalker they mention using sea water.

Anthony Parkerwood

@kwalker i\'m pretty sure people are talking about fresh water when they talk about scarce resources. As the article states; this new catalyst can be used with sea water, roughly 2/3rds of the earths surface.


@kwalker: Um... there is no scarcity of sea water, which this system is supposed to work with.


Inexpensive new proton reduction catalyst - seventy times cheaper than the platinum commonly used now - that can significantly reduce the costs of producing hydrogen using electrolysis to split water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy\'s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley.will be a new approach to speed up HYDROGEN ENERGY AS CARRIER.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India.


Let\'s not forget that you can electrolyse H2 from water without using exotic catalysts. The electricity could come from solar cells


\"Gee, we will soon be able to use mass quantities of water for fuel\"

Electrolytic Hydrogen like this doesn\'t \"use\" water, it emits water from chemically \"burning\" the catalyst. So it\'s more like electrolysis is storing power in the catalyst and releasing it as heat(or electricity) and water. Maybe some water gets bound up in that cycle but it\'s a -cycle- of store and release. The question here should be what\'s driving the electrolysis. Much like the folks who are excited about their plug in cars, people forget that it\'s coal/petroleum/nuclear that makes the magic come out of that plug in their garage. Not actually... magic. -Boyd (who never even took a chem class)


How does this compare to Daniel Nocera\'s (MIT) cobalt catalytic system for low threshold electrolysis ?

Robert Kieronski


i think it will be hard to use up all the water when hydrogen fuelcells and internal combustion engines all produce vapor as a byproduct. South Korea purifys sea water to drinking water.(which I have been drinking for years now) And I think it is safe to assume that we will be able to produce enough drinking water to go around for everyone. It is a problem with countries like in Africa, which countries government is unstable, that makes it hard to build infrastructures to purify water. Countries like US will probably won\'t have to worry about water. Especially as a fuel source. And the article said that it also works in seawater and dirty water. Although the question is how dirty the water is.

bio-power jeff

This is some great news. It\'s really important for people to realize that platinum is not viable for use in electrolysis. At over $1,600 USD an ounce, and the price variable upon demand, we need an alternative. Nano particles are a great route to explore. A company in Georgia called Gridshift just released a white paper on a novel nano-catalyst which is extremely high rate and high efficiency. The catalyst itself is made from cheap and abundant components. And itfs small! Small enough to hook up to a solar array at a fueling station solving one the most pressing barriers for the implementation the hydrogen highway The paper is available at:


The electrolysis unit is already up and running. It could be an important piece to help move us towards a hydrogen economy. And maybe more importantly, they are moving forward to using the unit as a base for a fuel cell which could be used as a storage device. Couple that device with wind or solar and you would have a great way to level the load and use all the energy we are generating.

Kevin Stein

It will be interesting to see the net energy output for the system... nothing is for free, and there will be electricity used to pump water, then pressurize and transport the hydrogen, and finally fuel to truck it to it\'s destination (unless it\'s made at the point of distribution).

It\'s a step in the right direction, though, and can\'t wait to see if someone puts this into production.


Platinum is $2000 an ounce, and this new stuff is 70 times cheaper. Wow, that\'s $140,000 cheaper, so the net gain is $138,000. When are these journalists going to take a math class?


lol @ PizzaEater. It\'s alright mate, it\'s not the first time \"times\" has been abused here or elsewhere.

Craig Jennings

(PY5Me2)Mo-oxo produces 2.4 moles of hydrogen per mole of catalyst per second according to the article. What does platinum catalyst produce?

Mitchel Eisenstein

The main point of catalysts is to facilitate a reaction (speed it up), which can also have the effect of improving the efficiency of the reaction process. Efficiency improvements can translate into energy savings.

The new discovery may inspire other discoveries that might make, for instance, photolysis of water possible (storing energy from the sun as hydrogen and oxygen, which can later be burned together to release the energy). Or, it may make the electrolysis of water (storing electrical energy as hydrogen and oxygen) more efficient (more energy stored per unit energy input).

Water split into hydrogen-oxygen with energy input, then burned with energy output, becomes water again. So the net amount of water on earth \"could\" remain constant. It may be transported to a different place; it may be desalinated; but the end result is still the same amount of water --- for the processes we have been considering.

The renewable energy comes from the sun, as solar-generated electricity, wind-generated electricity, or direct photolytic energy. We\'re not talking about water as an intrinsic source of energy.

Non-renewable energy (fossil fuels, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion) \"can\" also be stored as hydrogen-oxygen, but that energy comes from those non-renewable sources.

70 times less expensive means $2000/70 = $28.57, not 2000*70 = $140,000.


Maybe they can design a catalysis for methane/oxygen fuel cells that will allow us to tap into the energy stored in the 420,000 capped-off stripper gas/oil wells!

Ron Davison
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