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New catalyst said to make electrolyzers 200 times more efficient

By

August 23, 2010

Diagrams depict how an electrolyzer could be worked into a home's energy system

Diagrams depict how an electrolyzer could be worked into a home's energy system

Although wave power is attracting a lot of attention as a renewable energy source, it is possible to generate power from still water. All you need is an electrolyzer, which separates water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, then feeds them into a fuel cell. Electrolyzers, however, require catalysts to get the process rolling. While hydrogen production catalysts aren’t much of a problem, the platinum catalysts used for oxygen production are expensive, don’t last very long, and the creation of them incorporates toxic chemicals. This Monday, however, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the development of a new oxygen production catalyst that is 200 times more efficient than platinum. The nickel-borate-based catalyst has been licensed to Sun Catalytix, which is hoping to be producing safe, super-efficient electrolyzers within two years.

The development of the catalyst was part of an MIT study into systems for making homes and businesses energy self-sufficient. Such systems would include rooftop solar panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners' electric cars. Surplus energy would go to the electrolyzer, enabling it to produce more energy from water. At night, when the solar panels were inactive, the electrolyzer’s separately-stored hydrogen and oxygen would be fed into a fuel cell. This would result not only in nighttime electricity, but would also produce clean drinking water as a by-product. According to MIT, such a system could produce clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when the sun wasn’t shining.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and solar cells must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system."

The whole thing sounds somewhat like a bigger version of Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies’ HYDROFILL desktop hydrogen station, which charges AA battery-like cartridges by extracting hydrogen from water.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
11 Comments

Is it just me, or does it bug anyone else when the words "power" and "energy" are used as if they were interchangeable?

Ian

gadgetmind
24th August, 2010 @ 02:28 am PDT

When you use phrases like "it is possible to generate power from still water" and "Surplus energy would go to the electrolyzer, enabling it to produce more energy from water." you make it sound as though we are getting energy out of water, which of course we are not. We are putting energy into the water and later we get some, but not all, of it back. In other words we are storing energy.

felix
24th August, 2010 @ 03:07 am PDT

It is NOT "possible to generate power from still water". It is possible to split water into its components (hydrogen and oxygen) in order to STORE energy in a chemical form, which can be used to generate electricity later.

The development appears to have the potential to improve the efficiency of storing energy this way, although I don't quite understand how you can produce oxygen without hydrogen, or vice-versa....

Singer Scientist
24th August, 2010 @ 05:16 am PDT

"it is possible to generate power from still water" ...depending on how you interpret that it's either misleading or just false. The electrolyzer uses power from another source (solar, wind, grid, etc) to split the water and store the energy fed to it in the form of hydrogen. The energy can later be recovered in the fuel cell by using up the hydrogen. Power is not generated by still water, it's generated by hydrogen and oxygen combining to produce water. The water isn't an energy source in this case, as that sentence implies, it's just part of an energy storage technology. It's still neat tech, I just didn't want people to get the wrong idea!

RandomNinja
24th August, 2010 @ 06:48 am PDT

It is incremental breakthroughs in technologies such as this that will finally break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Lawrence Weisdorn
24th August, 2010 @ 06:54 am PDT

I hope, we need...

fmoura
24th August, 2010 @ 06:56 am PDT

Cool. Would any salt or mineral or some other continuity enhancing compound need to be added to the water for best electrolysis results? Would ocean water work well?

GeoMoon5
24th August, 2010 @ 11:35 am PDT

Ian, yes it bothers me also and I wish people who report on this kind of thing would learn the difference between power and energy.

GeoMoon5, adding salt or using ocean water are both bad ideas unless you don't mind producing chorine and lye (sodium hydroxide) this information is available on the net or in your junior year of high school chemistry. As far as other added materials for increased electrolysis results that is a good question. Most water is conductive but will vary depending on your source such as hard water vs rain water.

katgod
24th August, 2010 @ 06:23 pm PDT

Once again an article about new tech to improve renewable energy generation...in this case storage. But no info about the economics of it, the key to bench marking its value. Only mention that some company would like to use this tech in a product in a couple of years. Please train your writers to ask probing questions, not just reword PR releases.

tsvieps
28th August, 2010 @ 10:58 pm PDT

http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html

The economics will come from both the reduction in the power the system requires for production, as well as the cost of the materials in the system. Until HOGEN or someone else commercializes the process, it will be difficult to assess the economics.

If this process produces anywhere near 200 times the current efficiency, everything will be much cheaper and will be one of the greatest advances in energy we have known.

Robert Cox
9th June, 2011 @ 09:32 pm PDT

If current electrolosys is 8% efficient, how does something become 1600% efficient?

JBar
17th July, 2012 @ 11:31 am PDT
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